Frost/Nixon: What the NYC Play Is All About ... Controlling History

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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 the wilderness.”

“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....

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