Exploring the “rot in American politics” with Frost/Nixon

Richard Nixon became one of America’s most infamous Presidents after the Watergate Scandal, but that isn’t the whole story.

Michael Robinson, who will play Nixon in The Ensemble Theatre Company’s production of Frost/Nixon, was one of the first graduates of UBC’s BFA acting program. He currently teaches acting and director at the Vancouver Film School.

Robinson believes that there is a lot more to Nixon than what most people know.

“He was the greatest diplomatic president that the US has ever produced,” Robinson said. “He demonstrably made the world much safer from the threat of nuclear war, he created the Environmental Protection Agency, championed civil rights, removed racial segregation from the southern states and simply demonstrated great leadership, intelligence and judgement.”

Frost/Nixon dramatizes the interview series between Robert Frost and Richard Nixon recorded after Nixon resigned.. Originally written and performed in 2006, the play was adapted to film by Ron Howard. The film starred Michael Sheen as Frost and Frank Langella as Nixon and was nominated for several Academy Awards.

“I didn’t like the film,” Robinson admitted. “But I’m not sure if Americans can do Nixon justice. To an American, Nixon is far more than a man, he is an idea, a symbol, a crowbar straight under the American cultural heart.”

To Robinson, Nixon’s crimes are not as severe as those committed by current politicians and the Watergate scandal gave rise to a “rot in American politics” that started because of how he was treated.

According to Robinson, American society is based around the notion of “personal responsibility,” which makes it difficult for people to admit when they make mistakes. To him, this ennobles Nixon.

“If you compare his ‘crimes’ to that of Stephen Harper, and apply the same justice, Harper would not only be out of office, he would be behind bars. But to an American liberal, that is almost impossible to consider,” Robinson said. “[Nixon] really does have the courage to admit that he blew it, which, for an American president, is a very big deal.”

Robinson does acknowledge Nixon as a more complex figure. He believes bombing Cambodia was a war crime and that Nixon overturning the democratically elected government in Chile was inexcusable, but in playing the character he has to believe the opposite.

Playing a historical figure also comes with an added responsibility.

“With fiction, there is great freedom of interpretation. With biography, there is a great responsibility to be faithful to the source,” Robinson said. “To prepare for this role means not just learning lines and imagining the most interesting characterization, it involves watching hours of documentaries and reading a lot of books.”

“It involves not only getting into [Nixon’s] head, and understanding his perspective and why he did the things he did, but getting into the head of an American, with their remarkably different and unique culture, and defeating my own natural left wing bias and Canadian belief in shared responsibility.”

While depicting historical events, Robinson believes that Frost/Nixon illuminates an important moment in history and one that gave rise to muck-raking journalism obsessed with scandals, gossip and political bias.

“This is when TV news became about ratings instead of responsible reporting, and the world is worse for it,” he said.

Previews for Frost/Nixon begin on July 8 at the Jericho Theatre Centre. Tickets are available online.