Review

by Christopher Sharrett

Cineaste v22, n1 (Wntr, 1996):4 (5 pages).

COPYRIGHT Cineaste Publishers Inc. 1996. Used in the UCB Media Resources Web site with permission.

In the annotated screenplay to Oliver Stone's Nixon (1995), our thirty-seventh president regularly hallucinates a surreal, Bosch-like monstrosity referred to as "The Beast," an emblem of the roiling, viral evil within both Richard Nixon's psyche and the American body politic. The final cut of the film drops this overwrought device, but the point is still present in Stone's approach to the Nixon story. Stone has produced a worldview out of his now trademark postmodernist style, with its shifting film stocks and cockeyed camera angles. In Nixon, postwar America is not merely a morass of illusion and clandestinity, but a grisly phantasmagoria beyond understanding. Tuberculosis bacilli and the frothing mouth of J. Edgar Hoover's favorite race-horse portend the apocalypse; perfectly postmodernist, Nixon tends to eschew matters of cause and effect, especially as related to politics, yet this film is the best platform to date for Stone's moralism, his sense that something is very rotten within the state and the people it represents. The film is dolorous, halting, haunted, filled with menacing cadences, as opposed to the cyclone of JFK (1991). Nixon is an engrossing coda to JFK, one of the most important American films of the postwar era for the debate it unleashed about American power and its representations in history. To his great credit, Stone seems committed to his meditation on the political milieu in which he was raised, and to coming to terms with his conservative origins as he develops his vision of the underside of the American past. But in attempting to paint a 'balanced' portrait of Richard Nixon, Stone finally opts for poeticisms and halfhearted psychological probing (is the subject really worth the effort?) rather than an in-depth look at the horrid political landscape that Nixon occupied for almost half a century.

The prerelease publicity for Nixon made much of the idea that the Trickster's rise and fall is a tale of "Shakespearean" aspect, a colossal tragedy worthy of Sophocles. One must ask if Stone and the Hollywood Pictures PR people actually know classical literature. Tragedy requires a sense of waste, and a larger-than-life, multidimensional hero unable to recognize a fatal harmatia. Dick Nixon wasn't Oedipus, Lear, or even Richard III (even if Stone's Nixon ends up a limping, drooling loony), and the choice of Anthony Hopkins, as fine as he is, doesn't convince anyone with historical memory that this man was anything but small-minded, mendacious, and generally off-putting, regular attempts to rehabilitate his image nothwithstanding. Most sane people who lived through the Age of Nixon recall a venal, opportunistic, smarmy individual, lowbrow, lacking self-confidence, full of self-hatred, always playing for sympathy. This was the Reichian "little man" incarnate, a terribly constricted and terrified person who constantly projected his inadequacies onto an Other. Nixon was Uriah Heep, not Agamemnon. He traded on hate, on the most narrow impulses of the Silent Majority that became his audience. His story wasn't tragic, and Stone doesn't really think so either.

When Stone has the opportunity to pay his tribute to Nixon, the moment is pure buffoonery. Paul Sorvino's Kissinger tells us, as Nixon crumbles at Watergate high noon, that his boss's fall is a fate of "biblical proportions." Sorvino is an appealing waxworks impersonation of Kissinger, whose first appearance draws chuckles; the line itself comes across as a joke. While Nixon usually gets his greatest kudos for his foreign policy breakthroughs, detente with the Soviets and the 'opening' to China are also subjects for burlesque. Brezhnev and Mao are portrayed as oddballs, mumbling profanities and cynical bromides while Nixon drifts off into paranoid obsessions, agitprop titles in Chinese and Russian flashing on and off on the screen. While Stone regularly intercuts images of the Vietnam devastation as counterpoint, his concern for understanding the dark heart of Nixon's personality makes him lose his best opportunities to tell the simple and ugly truth about his subject's historical role. The Nixon/Kissinger diplomacy isn't a subject for buffoonery, and it certainly doesn't represent some nebulous high-point before the fall. While Nixon clinked champagne glasses with the leaders of China and the Soviet Union, bombs were annihilating Southeast Asia. The 'China card' ultimately legitimized Cambodia's Pol Pot regime, paving the way for some of the most appalling genocide of that era. And when the Reagan war machine ended what was left of detente, elder statesman Nixon was back to his keep-your-eye-on-the-commies mode, with little criticism of the Great Communicator.

Stone's ambivalence toward his Great Man view of Nixon is evident in the allusions and organization given to the film. The most obvious reference is Citizen Kane, from the film's flashback structure to the early scene of the lonely, bedeviled hero in a stormy White House, to Dick and Pat bickering at a long Chippendale dinner table. But Kane has limited use; this isn't a tale of innocence and great ideals betrayed. While Nixon may be an archetypal American, there is little grandeur to him, and Stone never gives his protagonist the nuance that Welles allowed his. When we get to the newsreel cavalcade of the hero's past, we don't, of course, see vignettes of the nation's development, but the campaigns against Jerry Voorhis and Helen Douglas, the Hiss Case, the Checkers speech, sweating it out against JFK in the 1960 presidential debates, belly-aching about the press after the defeat by Pat Brown. As we might expect, Stone's Nixon is propelled by ambitions that are small and personal, not grand and global. Stone elicits our sympathy for Nixon solely when he portrays a man who wants desperately to be loved; while this is a little trite, it gives the film some of its greatest poignancy.

Nixon's Whittier childhood is told in black-and-white segments that meld Wisconsin Death Trip with Norman Rockwell. The film shows greatest political savvy when we are offered Nixon as product of a long history of Protestant repression. Like Ron Kovic in Born on the Fourth of July, Nixon is the sum of his culture. If the Kovic story was Stone's way of showing that Vietnam was the consequence of many blithely-held American assumptions, Nixon is finally Stone's broadest assertion about the screwed-up nature of the American character, with Nixon not only the representative politician, but also the representative outcome of the more berserk features of American religious and political ideology. In such gestures Stone shows his most radical aspect.

In the scenes of Child Richard, the little boy being "thee'd" and "thou'd" by a near-crazed Quaker mother, Stone gets the most understanding for Nixon. Can we expect anything but blood and horror from a leader who, as a boy, asked his mother to see him as her "faithful dog"? Unfortunately, as in Born on the Fourth of July, the blame resides squarely with the female parent. While there are certainly enough patriarchal ogres in Nixon's saga, it is his mother Hannah (Mary Steenburgen) who haunts his dreams and hallucinations, providing a perpetual admonition. It is Hannah, not his grotesque father Frank (Tom Bower), who is the cause of the adult Nixon recoiling when a young hooker touches him, even making him avert his eyes from a glimpse of Pat's bare thigh.

While Stone's sexual politics were never more troublesome, there is some relief in the portrayal of Pat Nixon. Pat Nixon's strained-to-the- breaking-point suffering (compellingly portrayed by Joan Allen) is a kind of resistance to Nixon's self-absorbed belligerence, and is depicted as Nixon's only stabilizing force. She is nevertheless often seen by her husband as a shrewish pest, stifling his potential, pricking his conscience (she is at several points conflated with Hannah in Nixon's tortured visions). That Stone seems to side with Pat alleviates somewhat the condescending or irrelevant position he assigns most female characters. The difficulty here is that just as Nixon seems inflated by Stone, this version of his wife looks overly ennobling for Plastic Pat.

Homosexuality - always a problem for Stone - fares worse here than in JFK. J. Edgar Hoover and Clyde Tolson (Bob Hoskins and Brian Bedford, both too young-looking and attractive for this loathsome duo) are introduced as the human correlate for "The Beast"; they are first seen at a pool-side romp with a Latino houseboy. Stone might assume we know a great deal about the crimes of the late FBI Director, since, aside from a few of Hoover's racial slurs and ominous pronouncements, it is homosexuality that serves as the chief emblem of Hoover's evil. Hoover is constructed first as a pervert, then as a chief functionary of the state apparatus. About the most we can commend Stone for here is his attempt to dig at Hoover's hypocrisy; Hoover's homosexuality was such a guarded secret that the public was practically forced into a collective denial, while Hoover and pals Roy Cohn, Cardinal Spellman, and Joe McCarthy made life miserable for gays and all other oppressed peoples.

Nixon is linked visually so often with Lincoln that we think the film is coasting toward sheer hagiography, but for every image of the Lincoln Memorial there is a shot of an expressionist portrait of Lincoln-as- Mephistopheles in Nixon's sitting room, a cross between Graceland and a set from a Poe movie. When Alexander Haig (Powers Boothe) advises Nixon to institute martial law, statues of Lincoln flash by, and images of virtually all the presidents keep swirling in and around Nixon's head as his paranoia worsens. Robin Wood once noted that Watergate resulted in a questioning of the internalized father; Stone seems to know this as he takes on America's patriarchal underpinnings less through a dissection of the family than through scrutiny of the central icons of U.S. culture. It is when he ventures strictly into the political that confusion sets in.

Anyone familiar with the early media comments on this film, even before it went into production, knows that a great deal of hand-wringing and gnashing of teeth went on (as with JFK), over whether or not Stone was going to tamper with 'the historical record' (that is, the version of history most comforting to official court painters, media pundits, and historians convinced that God's in his heaven, all's right with the world). Just as Tom Wicker was transformed into a film critic and allowed a full page in The New York Times to lambaste JFK for its utter audacity in suggesting Kennedy could have been the victim of internecine violence within the power structure, Richard Reeves was afforded a similar honor, complaining in the Sunday Times that Stone uses a "creative camera" (whatever this means) in implying that Nixon was knowledgeable of clandestine operations, including the Kennedy execution, in the postwar state.

The Kennedy assassination is part of 'The Beast' that haunts the film; JFK, as much as Hannah, is a Shakespearean ghost constantly gnawing at Nixon. Nixon's obsessive love/hate relationship with Kennedy is an entrenched mythology that pops up in almost every biography, and here it has an archetypal proportion. Nixon is the ugly Black Prince heckled by the ghost of the Golden Prince whose throne he usurped. Nixon tells H.R. Haldeman (James Woods) that he achieved high office over "four bodies" (he associates the dead Kennedys with his own lost brothers Arthur and Harold, the guilt for whose demise his mother regularly enforced). As Watergate is about to bring him down, the lonely king strolls the corridor of the immortals, at last confronting a portrait of JFK, saying to himself, "When they look at you they see what they want to be; when they look at me they see what they are." The Golden Bough idea is overdrawn when Nixon, in the same scene, tells Haig that all leaders must be sacrificed, and "I am that sacrifice." Here again a great deal of sophisticated introspection (not to mention erudition) is imputed to Nixon, largely to serve the kind of intellectual conceits Coppola stuffed into Apocalypse Now, except that Stone is far less ham-handed. The real problem is Stone's constant return to myth and bad poetry when the facts contain all the drama.

The film's sense of the pervasive malevolence saturating the American Century at times serves it better than Stone's notion of clandestine America, not because his basic assertions are off base, but because he enunciates them so vaguely. Stone seems constantly torn between documenting the visceral truth of an unseen side of state power, and merely hinting at such within the general matrix of foreboding, doleful tableaux. There are indeed reasons to think that Nixon knew something about the data of the JFK hit, and not merely because he smelled something wicked in the air at Love Field in Dallas on November 22, 1963. In his book The Ends of Power, H.R. Haldeman suggests that when Nixon wanted the CIA to help him shut down the Watergate investigations by reminding Richard Helms (whose portrayal by Sam Waterston was cut from the film) that "the whole Bay of Pigs thing" might be exposed, the cryptic phrase was actually Nixon's attempt to get the CIA's attention about both the 'Track 2' murder plots against Fidel Castro and the assassination of JFK. Stone's published screenplay sources these matters thoroughly, but the movie deals in barely-heard asides and leering grins from cigar-chewing rightists that the audience will almost axiomatically pooh-pooh.

There is so much more to the "deep politics" (in Peter Dale Scott's phrase(1)) of Nixon's career that would seem ready-made for Stone's scenario, but is oddly absent. Nixon was the White House Action Officer on the Bay of Pigs operation, instigated in the final years of the Eisenhower Administration, but rather removed from Ike's vision after his tiff with the CIA over the U-2 debacle. Nixon bragged of his role in Six Crises. While JFK played the Cold War sword-rattler against Cuba during the 1960 campaign, Nixon was a rather central player in the proposed overthrow of Castro's revolution. The political officer of the Bay of Pigs was master CIA propagandist E. Howard Hunt, later of Plumbers fame, who, like Nixon and buddy Bebe Rebozo (appearing in "Trini Cardoza" - Stone was apparently very gunshy of lawsuits in this project), was very tight with the right- wing Cuban exile organizations, and constructed the umbrella group known as the Cuban Revolutionary Council. The CRC was headquartered in, among other places, 544 Camp Street in New Orleans, the robbers roost/intelligence safe house overseen by Guy Banister, David Ferrie, and Clay Shaw, all of whom figure prominently in the Lee Harvey Oswald narrative.

Nixon was also one of those rare birds who could never recall (or get his story straight about) what he was doing when Kennedy was ambushed in Dealey Plaza. In a 1967 interview with reporter Jules Witcover, Nixon said he had just landed in New York after a Dallas trip on behalf of Pepsi-Cola (the film changes this affiliation to the Studebaker auto company -lawsuit wariness again) when he heard the news of the assassination, but in his 1964 FBI interview he stated that he left Dallas on the 20th, two days before the assassination. Records show that he was indeed booked on a flight from Dallas to New York on the 22nd. One could go on for a goodly spell about Nixon's coziness with the Batista government, the Mafia, crooked real estate deals, with the C. Arnholt Smiths, Lou Cheslers, Jimmy Hoffas, and Walter Annenbergs, ad nauseam.(2)

These incidentals and their failure to be dealt with substantially are probably less important than the political fog that Stone lets envelop the film, perhaps out of the filmmaker's fear of getting in too deep given what happened to him by the hysteria focused on JFK. There are various conspiratorial meetings and mutterings, including a near-comic scene at the Texas ranchhouse of an oil baron called "Jack Jones" (Larry Hagman in an inspired piece of casting - was there a greater symbol of late capital's excess than J.R. Ewing?). Nixon reportedly met several times with tycoon Clint Murchison, but this moment needs to tell us more about Nixon's relationships with Howard Hughes, with H.L. Hunt, and with the sector of Sunbelt capital that burgeoned with the arms race and the Vietnam invasion but felt itself underrepresented within the halls of state power up until Johnson and Nixon. Carl Oglesby's masterful The Yankee and Cowboy War outlines the internal battles of postwar capital which overtook Kennedy and Nixon; the film's script makes extensive use of Oglesby, but the movie offers almost no specific argument about Eastern banking capital's fears of the deficit spending resulting from the Keynesian economic formula that linked the economy to weapons production, versus the concerns of oil/aerospace/munitions capital that made a trillion-dollar killing from sticking with this formula. Nixon had a distinct position in this squabble, but what we get is his victimization, not the reasons why.

The tendency to portray Nixon as a self-aware martyr of a nebulous 'system' is where eyebrows are at their highest. During the film's rendering of Nixon's famous rap session with war protesters, a student, apparently convinced of Nixon's sincerity, acknowledges that Nixon probably can't stop the war "even if [you] wanted to." Nixon is somehow outside of the policies he helped to create and implement. In the Watergate story that frames the film, there are suggestions that he is hoist by a petard other than his own arrogance, and that he is subject to demands beyond his own ambitions. There are some highly compelling (and some very bad) critiques of Watergate that regard it not as the venomous Nixon vs. the good guys in the press and the Congress, but rather as more internecine feuding within the state. Stone clearly draws on this material, but instead of offering a specific thesis of Watergate (like Jim Hougan's Secret Agenda, for example) Stone equivocates, with more dark hints. "Jack Jones" begins complaining to Nixon about "nigger kids" being bused into his neighborhood, the EPA, and about Nixon forgetting to whom he owes his election. So is this why Watergate happened? What about the Hughes loans, or the 'Nixon shocks' that ushered in new protectionism and ended the gold standard? Nixon was not merely a puppet of postwar U.S. capitalism, but a ready, willing, and able player, and Stone does us no service by mystifying the issue.

After Nixon's misery in his tower garret, there is an end credit portrayal of his swan song to his staff; I didn't think it possible to conceive of this speech as anything other than another Nixon attempt to pull at heartstrings, even as it did reveal a man on the edge of madness in his final public hours, but Stone lets Hopkins allow Nixon some dignity. Even more, in a video clip of Nixon's funeral, Stone's voice-over informs us that Nixon insisted that, had he stayed in office, "North Vietnam would not have 'overrun' the south." Does Stone embrace this wisdom? Even as another matter-of-fact attempt to give the devil his due, the politics of this tip of the hat look more than a little suspect.

The first images of the film are of a sequence from a Fifties-era, cornball public-relations training film wherein a young salesman is taught the principle of "sincerity counts," as the boss winks at the camera. In a moment no dramatist would find plausible, but which Stone wisely uses as his central metaphor of the Nixon epoch, the Watergate burglars watch the film (as part of their 'cover'), sipping margaritas while they await the go-code from Gordon Liddy (John Diehl) and Howard Hunt (Ed Harris). This scene, and the somber curtain call against an ethereal "Shenandoah" on the soundtrack, remind us that this is a film about a man who was the subject of a book entitled The Selling of the President, who depended on all the gimmicks of media culture (so poor was the product offered) and made them central to the political arena.

What Nixon captures very well is a fairly commonplace public contention about its subject: Nixon, more than any modern politician, is a symbol of the delegitimization of the standing political order. With Nixon, America stands exposed. Nixon's unnerving tapestry of recent American history jabs at contemporary nostalgia impulses; the film counters notions of an innocent past by showing us how the Nixon story works in reminding us that such times happened only if one wants to remain bemused. After all, Nixon, as much as Eisenhower and JFK, represents a naive era in which many of us matured. It may be unfair to him, but Nixon's career will also remain for many the key symbol of a coming to terms with the truth about America.

Stone substitutes an occasionally incoherent psychohistory for history, but the choice may not be unreasonable. More than a few have referred to the Nixon regime as a "nightmare" (Gerald Ford's "Our long national nightmare is over"; J. Anthony Lukas's excellent Nightmare: The Underside of the Nixon Years), but even with the phantasmagoric hellscape that shapes his film, Stone does not regard the Nixon years as a bad dream, an aberration, a 'scandal.' Rather, Stone suggests that Richard Nixon was merely representative of what poet Andre Chenier termed "Les crimes puissants qui font trembler les lois," crimes so great that they make the laws themselves tremble, crimes about which we are all rather blase, and which therefore stand for business as usual for modern American power. By this recognition, Stone indeed gives us a tragedy, but it is ours, not Richard Nixon's.

Footnotes: 1 Peter Dale Scott, Deep Politics and the Death of JFK (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1993). See also Scott, Crime and Cover-Up: The CIA, the Mafia, and the Dallas-Watergate Connection (Berkeley, CA: Westworks, 1977).

2 See, for example, Jeff Gerth, "Richard Nixon and Organized Crime," in Sid Blumenthal and Harvey Yazijian, eds., Government by Gunplay: Assassination Conspiracy Theories From Dallas to Today (New York, NY: Signet, 1975).

Christopher Sharrett is Associate Professor of Communication at Seton Hall University and is the editor of Crisis Cinema: The Apocalyptic Idea in Postmodern Narrative Film.

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