Frost/Nixon and the Subjectiveness of History

In the January issue of Smithsonian magazine, journalist James Reston Jr. has authored a fascinating article about his qualms and ambivalence regarding the manner in which the movie Frost/Nixon dealt with the presumed facts of history.

“I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what is gained and what is lost when history is turned into entertainment,” said Reston in the article.

Reston is portrayed in the movie as one of the journalists hired by British talk show host David Frost to help prepare for the 1976 television interview with former President Richard M. Nixon. The movie, directed by Ron Howard, was based on a play of the same title written by British screenwriter Peter Morgan.

Consulted early on by Morgan for the writing of the play, Reston expressed concern over how Nixon was being portrayed as cracking very quickly emotionally. When Reston argued for a more nuanced and extended portrayal of Nixon’s concession of guilt regarding Watergate, he was told that theatrical requirements demanded a compressed collapse in the story, even if it may not have happened that way in Reston’s memory.

“No one seemed to care about what was historically accurate and what had been made up,” writes Reston, who felt that the transcripts of the Nixon interviews were sufficiently dramatic in their original form.

Reston, who has written plays, grudgingly accepts that the demands on the historian may by necessity be at odds with those informing the dramatist.

“Morgan’s attention was on capturing and keeping his audience,” writes Reston. “Every line needed to connect to the next, with no lulls or droops in deference to dilatory historical detail. Rearranging facts or lines or chronology was, in his view, well with in the playwright’s mandate. In his research for the play,different participants had given different, Rashomon-like versions of the same event.”

In a New York Times story last year, Morgan was quoted as reminding the interviewer of “what a complete farce history is.”

Reston suggests a middle ground, arguing that an author is “on the firmest ground when he does not change known facts but goes beyond them to speculate on the emotional makeup of the historical players.” He goes on to concede that the movie and play were not about Watergate or Nixon at all, but about larger issues such as “guilt and innocence, resistance and enlightment, confession and redemption.”

“These are themes straight history can rarely crystallize,” Reston concluded. “In the presence of the playwright’s achievement, the historian–or a participant–can only stand in the wings and applaud.”

In my opinion, arguments regarding the sanctity of the historical record lose force the farther the story being told recedes in time. Modern luxuries such tape recorders, transcriptions, television and radio clips, and online databases allow us to come a bit closer, if such an enterprise is even possible, to the actual truth of what really happened.

Reston’s article generated several impassioned responses in the February issue of  Smithsonian’s letters to the editor section. One reader was reminded of a quote from Julian Barnes’ A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters:

“History isn’t what happened. History is just what historians tell us.”

2 Responses to “Frost/Nixon and the Subjectiveness of History”

  • I was captured by the alleged quote by Peter Morgan, “what a complete farce history is.”

    I know how people use the word “farce” cynically; I hear it every day. They use it to say, “there is no such thing as truth.” Which means, I can do anything, say anything I want to and if I have the power to control the channels of media, it becomes “truth.” Plato had a good time with this in one of his dialogues.
    But, it seems to me, it is more true that Morgan’s play and the movie based on it were more accurately farces.
    Webster’s definition of a farce is: to improve as if by stuffing.
    Now, Morgan says he cut the parade of jelly-like facts down to the bone. But I would argue he in fact stuffed history with a bunch of crap. The person I was with, for example, walked out of the movie asking, “What was that girl (Frost’s friend) there for? She never did anything.” She was, in fact, a very large bit of well-stuffed stuffing in the form of eye-candy to get some better ratings.

    But (and I know I’ll get flak for this), I rather like the Wikipedia definition of farce:

    “A farce is a comedy written for the stage or film which aims to entertain the audience by means of unlikely, extravagant, and improbable situations, disguise and mistaken identity, verbal humour of varying degrees of sophistication, which may include sexual innuendo and word play, and a fast-paced plot whose speed usually increases, culminating in an ending which often involves an elaborate chase scene. Farce is also characterized by physical humour, the use of deliberate absurdity or nonsense, and broadly stylized performances.

    Many farces move at a frantic pace toward the climax, in which the initial problem is resolved one way or another, often through a deus ex machina twist of the plot. Generally, there is a happy ending. The convention of poetic justice is not always observed: The protagonist may get away with what he or she has been trying to hide at all costs, even if it is a criminal act involving crazy costumes.

    Farce in general is highly tolerant of transgressive behavior, and tends to depict human beings as vain, irrational, venal, infantile, and prone to automatic behavior. In that respect, farce is a natural companion of satire. Farce is, in fact, not merely a genre but a highly flexible dramatic mode that often occurs in combination with other forms, including romantic comedy. Farce is considered a theatre tradition.”

    In fact, history, even in the summarized version that comes down to us, is the exact opposite of farce, which students and people like Morgan (if the quote is correct) accurately note and bewail.

    History, as written by good historians, is usually very unlike the above definition of farce. Historians, for example, tend to avoid deus ex machina explanations and Keystone cop chases at the end of their books.

    It seems to me that Morgan’s play and Howard’s movie version has many more qualities of a farce (I found the Nixon character sadly farcical compared to the complexity of the real Nixon)than the history contained in the Watergate tapes.

    Solipsistic, self-centered cynics, who devalue historical knowledge because it can never be perfect are ubiquitous. At least they always seem to find me and proceed to annoy. In the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris I was once accosted by a fellow tourist while we were inspecting the models of how the church was constructed. He asked me, “How do we know any of this is true and not just all made up.” I was about to get nasty and tell him he should read some books and perhaps even go to look at original documents in Paris libraries and museums when his distraught wife ran up to me and asked me to ignore him, “He’s always like this,” she said. In fact there was no way to give him an education in archeological documentation in five minutes in the half-dark cathedral.

    My last point is to draw a comparison.
    The world and humans have a history. And our knowledge of that history can be inferred to be imperfect. But what about an individual person. “Know thyself?” Socrates was setting an enormous task, not offering a solution. The Oedipus trilogy was all about individuals not having a clue (or having only a few difficult clues) about their history and the tragedy of that imperfect knowledge. But following some of the clues one can come to some knowledge about oneself. Freud said the same thing. Now neuroscientists are telling us things about the limits of our ability to know things about ourselves, with whom we are ostensibly intimate. For example, that the brain (body) decides to do something before we are consciously aware of a decision. But the brain has the remarkable ability to construct an identity, which is actually a longitudinal memory, or history, that is our working construct of ourselves. Our personal histories are sometimes a farce in the above senses; more often they are serious, incomplete, works in progress, areas of discovery, etc. To throw our individual histories or the human history out the window as totally malleable and useful only in reaching concrete goals (and where do these come from? and where does the language they are couched in come from?) is to engage in the flagrant errors of history-twisters like Stalin or tragically ill schizophrenics.

  • A year late-but thanks for this thoughtful post. While not being in total agreement, I can understand Morgan’s cynicism on this point. Anyone who reads enough historical non-fiction should become aware that not only are the large over-arching theories usually disputed among experts, even basic facts often are as well. What IS a fiction writer or dramatist to do when faced with two, three, or more versions of events?

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