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Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Peter Morgan: The man behind 'Frost/Nixon'

November 24, 2008 |  1:16 pm

Every writer has a special subject, a passion for a certain kind of story. The same goes for Peter Morgan, who's become Hollywood's favorite British bright-writing light in recent times, thanks to a string of impressive pictures. He's the man who wrote 2006's "The Queen," which nabbed a best picture nomination; "The Last King of Scotland," an indie favorite from that same year; and the upcoming "Frost/Nixon," Morgan's adaptation of his smash hit play about the 1977 TV duel between chat-show host David Frost and Richard Nixon, the ex-president who'd been forced to resign in disgrace after an unsuccessful attempt to cover up the infamous Watergate break-in.

But what I find especially fascinating about Morgan (who also wrote "The Deal," a fine 2003 Stephen Frears-directed film about the ambition-filled rivalry between former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and current PM Gordon Brown) is that his films have essentially the same two characters. One is young, slick, likable and wildly ambitious, often underestimated as a lightweight solely obsessed by celebrity or personal gain. The other is older, more experienced and accomplished, unpopular or socially awkward, but often with a vulnerability that we find surprising appealing. In the end, the younger man tends to emerge victorious, but often having shown more mettle and depth than we'd imagined, while the older character often arouses our sympathy, even in defeat.

Frost_2In this sense, even though "Frost/Nixon" is directed by Ron Howard, it's really a Peter Morgan movie, revisiting themes he's explored in earlier stories. It also makes for an especially striking dramatic equation, since for people of a certain generation--or perhaps generations--Nixon had a secure place in history as a true villain, a nasty, insecure, conniving politician who'd disgraced his office by his efforts to crush his adversaries. The biggest surprise of "Frost/Nixon,'' which stars Frank Langella as Nixon and Michael Sheen as Frost, is how strangely sympathetic Nixon appears in the film. He's sly, funny and self-aware. As the men are digging into each other's past, hoping to gain an advantage before the interviews begin, Nixon tells one of his aides that he should get some Cubans to find out what Frost is up to. The aide looks at him in horror--that's just what got Nixon in trouble in the first place, hiring some Cubans to break into Democratic headquarters. Nixon coyly lets the tension build before finally wryly exhaling, "It's a joke."

It's quite a compliment, to a dramatist, to say that I often found myself not just drawn to Nixon, but sometimes actively rooting for him against Frost, who until the film's climactic third act comes off as a celebrity-obsessed smoothie in over his head against a formidable foe. The night before the first big interview, instead of going over strategy with his team of researchers, Frost heads off with his girlfriend to a movie premiere. It's not the first time Morgan appears full of compassion for the less likable character in his story. He largely does the same thing in "The Queen," making Queen Elizabeth far more likable and full of flinty charm and Zen-like serenity than her public image. The same even goes for Idi Amin in "The Last King of Scotland," who is portrayed as far more complicated and vulnerable than the hideous monster of so many media accounts. 

Why is Morgan so drawn to the characters who would normally be the scoundrel of the story? He has an intriguing response. Keep reading:

Morgan says that, for a writer, it's liberating to see historical characters in a different light. "It had become almost a sin to think of Nixon as anything less than a villain," he told me Friday. "And strangely, that aroused my indignation. I thought it was time to move on from seeing Nixon as the boogeyman of American politics. He's not the skulking Herblock cartoon version of the man, with the ski-jump nose and perspiration and five o'clock shadow. I admit to having great sympathy for him."

Morgan proposes that the two pivotal characters of "Frost/Nixon" were actually miscast in real life. "It was Frost who had the sunny personality of a politician and Nixon who would've been a truly great investigative journalist--a Mike Wallace type," he says. "That was his persona, rigorous and analytical, like a journalist. He just wasn't cut out to be president. All his failings--low self-esteem, paranoia, suspiciousness, misanthropy--were a disaster for someone in public life. He was catastrophic with people. And since he didn't love people, they in turn were unable to love him, which as we know all too well, is what makes presidents successful."

Using that personality evaluation, Morgan offers a simple explanation of "Frost/Nixon's" dramatic focus: "It's written as a clash of two contrasting characters--one man who felt enormously comfortable with human beings and one who wasn't comfortable at all."

You could view the two lead characters in "The Queen" through the exact same prism--it was Tony Blair (again played by Sheen, who also plays Blair in "The Deal") who was comfortable with others; Queen Elizabeth, played by Helen Mirren, who wasn't comfortable at all. In "The Deal," it is Gordon Brown who, though possessing far great political brainpower, loses out in a power struggle with Blair largely because he's isn't as comfortable with people as his rival.

Morgan recently wrote a piece for Written By, the Writers Guild magazine, where he noted his surprise that people embraced Mirren's character in "The Queen" with such passion. He says: "I insist to this day that if you read the screenplay to 'The Queen,' it leaves you in no doubt that we considered her an isolated, out-of-touch, cold, emotionally inaccessible, overprivileged, deluded woman, heading an institution that should immediately be dismantled in any free and fair society. Yet somehow, thanks to Helen Mirren's transformative performance and an audience's inexplicable tendency to be drawn to people with flaws ... you end up finding her almost heroic. The harder we were on her, the more people liked her."

With "Frost/Nixon," Morgan says he discovered from theater audiences that no one quite understood the role that Nixon's self-destructiveness played in his test of wills with Frost. So, for the film version, Morgan added a sequence where Nixon is playing the piano before the last big interview session, knowing that he has bested Frost in nearly every exchange they've had so far. "To me, it's now perhaps the key moment in the film," says Morgan. "You see Nixon thinking that he's won, but instead of relishing victory, a terrible sadness descends upon him. He's in some way a man born to fail, genetically predisposed to tragedy and self-destruction."

The self-destructive urge leads Nixon to make a late-night phone call to Frost, a drunken outpouring of raw emotion and vitriol that is perhaps the most incendiary sequence in the film. "I wanted to dramatize the idea of Nixon handing Frost the sword in which he slays himself," Morgan says. "In a drunken moment, he phones his nemesis and galvanizes him into redoubling his efforts, which of course bring about Nixon's downfall."

It's always a pleasure to interview Morgan, because he's so eager to talk about the drama inherent in his stories. He only clams up when I ask why he's so drawn to the idea of two characters, the grasping arriviste and the vulnerable elder. "I suppose I use the young upstart as the person who can take us, the audience, into the world of the story," he says. "I guess it's a way of showing that everyone is worthy of some kind of redemption, that we shouldn't be so brutally chastised for our imperfections."

Then he falls silent. "I hope you'll take this the right way, but I really don't like talking about it. I don't want to become too self-conscious--it's why I never read reviews, even the good ones. If you start to analyze what you do, it can paralyze you. I'm very happy for others to engage in conjecture, but if I was ever conscious of what I'm thinking about when I'm writing, oh my God, I'd be totally lost."

Photo of Frank Langella and Ron Howard on the set of "Frost/Nixon" by Ralph Nelson / Universal Pictures