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Is Frost/Nixon true? Let’s ask PC grad Jack Brennan — he was there

01:00 AM EST on Friday, January 23, 2009

By Michael Janusonis

Journal Arts Writer

bacon

When audiences see Frost/Nixon, Ron Howard’s screen version of writer Peter Morgan’s international stage hit, most will believe they are seeing history come to life.

To which Jack Brennan, who is played on screen by Kevin Bacon, says, “The film is a complete fiction. All I can say is that it’s based on actual events.”

Brennan speaks from authority. He was there. The retired Marine colonel and Providence College grad was with Nixon for 13 years. He became the Marine Corps Aide to the president shortly after Nixon was elected in 1968, on through the turbulent White House years and Nixon’s historic trip to China, which opened up the country to the United States, and later to Nixon’s resignation and life in San Clemente, Calif. When the president resigned in 1974, Brennan was aboard the helicopter and airplane that flew the Nixon family back to California. At San Clemente, Brennan served as Nixon’s chief of staff and negotiated the terms for the 1977 interviews with David Frost that became a TV sensation and are the subject of Morgan’s play and movie script.

Speaking by phone from his home in Palm Springs, Calif. — where “there’s a lot of sunshine and a lot of golfing; it’s what I deserve” — the 71-year-old Brennan says he had fought with Morgan to get things right, but to no avail. “He wrote it from David Frost’s book, which is fairly accurate, although it leans toward Frost of course. He took the book and fictionalized it.”

At Providence College, through April 1, there’s an exhibit on either side of the entrance hall at the Phillips Memorial Library of material from both the film and Brennan’s career with Nixon. It’s a small part of the collection — 34 boxes worth — that Brennan has donated to the college’s archives. Included in the Frost/Nixon exhibit is Frost’s book autographed to Brennan as well as a large photograph, signed by Frost to Brennan, of the final negotiations for the Nixon television interviews in 1977.

Brennan, a 1959 PC graduate who was born in Fall River and summers in Little Compton, mentions a couple of things in the screen version that really irk him. Not only did a rambling late-night call that an inebriated Nixon makes in the film to Frost never happen, Brennan takes special umbrage because Nixon did not drink alcohol. “It’s offensive because it implies that Nixon was a drunk. But he couldn’t handle liquor and almost never drank.” Brennan says that when someone would insist that Nixon have a drink with them at a dinner or special occasion, “I sent him a ‘blonde Dubonnet,’ which is a non-alcoholic drink that looks like scotch.”

When Brennan met with the set designer, he squashed the original plan to put a bar in Nixon’s San Clemente house, although a bottle of liquor can still be seen on a table in one scene. The set designer did agree to put a PC Friars basketball jersey (Brennan is a big Friars booster) on the wall of Brennan’s office in the film. Alas, it didn’t make the final cut onto the screen, although Brennan thinks it might turn up in the bonus material on the DVD. Today that jersey hangs in a display case in the library exhibit at PC.

Another prickly point for Brennan is that Nixon, played by Frank Langella both on stage and in the film, is heard swearing frequently and easily. “Although I often heard him say ‘son of a bitch,’ I never heard him use the ‘F word.’ It was not in his vocabulary,” Brennan says of Nixon.

He also points out that a phone call Brennan makes to Frost in the film, threatening the TV interviewer if he got the facts wrong, was made up by Morgan for dramatic purposes. “What frightened me was that Frost had the right to edit the interview tapes any way he wanted,” Brennan recalls. He was afraid the tapes could be edited to change the focus of what was said to make Nixon look very bad. “I didn’t know Frost. He didn’t know me. But one day over lunch in the final negotiations we drank a lot of wine. I told him I trusted him, but I also threatened him — in person — over the editing, not over what was right and what was wrong.” (Yesterday Morgan received an Academy Award nomination for his adapted screenplay.)

After Bacon had signed to play Brennan in the movie, one of the actor’s aides called Brennan to arrange a meeting. Brennan was reluctant at first, until he was assured that Bacon “was a true professional.”

“And sure enough, he was.” The actor drove from New York to Little Compton to meet with Brennan, leaving with an armload of videos and print interviews that Brennan had done so he could get the character right for the movie.

Brennan was on the movie set only once and it was on one of the final days the movie was shooting in California. Brennan was about to fly back to Los Angeles in October 2007 when he got a call from Bacon asking him to visit the set. “When I got there, Bacon was doing a scene. During the break, he came over to ask me what I had been thinking during the moment that he was playing in the scene,” something that impressed Brennan by the actor’s dedication.

In the PC exhibit you can see pictures of Brennan on the movie set with Bacon as well as photos of him with Morgan, with the Nixons and Mao Zedong in China, tickets for the movie premiere in Hollywood and for the play, a timeline showing important moments in Nixon’s career.

Phillips Memorial Library archivist Russell M. Franks said there is so much stuff from Brennan that material from his collection turns up frequently in other exhibits the library stages.

Library director D. Russell Bailey said the Brennan collection includes “several thousand items, including invitations to dinners here and abroad, Christmas cards and pictures of Jack Brennan with political leaders around the world.

“Our job is to care for them and provide access to them, both in the library and to digitize them to make them available to students, faculty and researchers around the world.” Some of the material is already on the Internet and there will be more to come.

You can see the Frost/Nixon exhibit through April 1 at the Phillips Memorial Library on the Providence College campus. Library hours are 8 a.m. to 2 a.m. Monday to Thursday; 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday; 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday; 9 a.m. to 2 a.m. Sunday. Admission is free.

mjanuson@projo.com

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