The crucial moment of Peter Morgan’s new play on Broadway, “Frost/Nixon,” about
the four ninety-minute interviews that David Frost conducted with Richard Nixon
in 1977, comes not during the famous final session, on Watergate, but the night
before. Nixon, who has been drinking, places an imaginary but not unimaginable
phone call to Frost, who has been agonizing over his abject failure to direct
the conversation in the first three interviews. The ex-President, played by
Frank Langella, points out that both men rose up from nowhere and, at that
moment, as the decade meanders to a close, both seem bound for oblivion. “If we
reflect privately just for a moment,” Nixon muses, “if we allow ourselves a
glimpse into that shadowy place we call our soul, isn’t that why we’re here now?
The two of us? Looking for a way back? Into the sun? Into the limelight? Back
onto the winner’s podium? Because we could feel it slipping away? We were
headed, both of us, for the dirt.” Frost, played by Michael Sheen, accepts the
truth of this but adds, “Only one of us can win.” And Nixon warns him, “I shall
be your fiercest adversary. I shall come at you with everything I’ve got.
Because the limelight can only shine on one of us. And for the other, it’ll be
“Frost/Nixon” is about the struggle to control historical memory, with
television the medium, self-explanation the means, and redemption the prize.
Nixon, with his sterile capacity for insight, understood the reductiveness of
historical judgment, and he wanted to head off his own ignominy while there was
time. Of course, he failed: only historians and partisans remember what Nixon
did before June 17, 1972, and the only one of the Frost interviews that anyone
recalls is the session on Watergate. For better or worse, popular memory
flattens out the facts. For decades, the Civil Rights Act and Medicare were
obliterated from Lyndon Johnson’s record by the glare of napalm. Jimmy Carter is
defined by the hostage crisis and a word, “malaise,” that he never uttered.
Ronald Reagan brought down the Soviet empire. And so on....