The gifted playwright and screenwriter Peter Morgan may not have had a digital editing program feature named after him, like the “Ken Burns effect” found in iMovie, but he seems to always be getting closer to defining a “Peter Morgan moment.” In both The Queen and Frost/Nixon, the work in question here, the Morgan moment involves reversal and recognition, two of Aristotle’s characteristic elements for tragedy, but the upshot contains a hope of redemption along with the pangs of regret. The fact that Morgan weaves these realizations into the fabric of history, using real characters and often, though not always, their real words, only makes his achievements more remarkable.
In Frost/Nixon, that Morgan moment comes in two variations: the famous admission of responsibility for the Watergate cover-up that made the original interviews an all-time must-see political television event, and a dramatic (and entirely fabricated) late-night phone call from Nixon to Frost just days before their final encounter. As Richard Nixon, Ed Giron has a great subject and a fascinating role to work with. Without ever yielding to the impulse to do a comedian’s Nixon impression, he manages to convey the man’s inner conflict, his unresolved feelings about his reputation, his conscience, and his legacy. As David Frost, Justin Stark is by turns charming and filled with steely nerve and fierce concentration. Together, the lead actors successfully create the sense of mortal combat on which the logic of the piece depends.
Not everything works all the time, as the blocking of such a specialized show necessarily tests the limits of the audience’s focus. There are scenes where the actors are orbiting one another, rather than occupying the space, but there are also compensating moments when the characters come together as one for some well-timed revelations. Alfred St. John Smith gives James Reston some of the spark that must have burned through all those lonely nights of Watergate research, and Don Margolin captures the stoicism and loyalty of the Nixon camp in his portrayal of advisor Jack Brennan. Ana Lieberman and Stark have fun with the scene in which Frost meets his companion, Caroline Cushing, during a transatlantic flight, and Jerry Oshinsky and Matt Cooper are both good as Bob Zelnick and John Birt, the wary television executives who rode with Frost on this wild ride.