“He’s the darkness, reaching out for the darkness.”

Oliver Stone’s Nixon is an amazing film. I kind of wish Stone was still making movies like this: densely packed films that overwhelm the audiences with information and tell their tales in complex, non-linear ways. Well, maybe Stone still is making movies like this; in truth, I haven’t kept up with his career much over the last ten years.

It’s easy to see Nixon as a companion piece to the earlier JFK, and in many ways, it almost is. But it’s also a very different film, even while using many of the same techniques of the earlier film. Nixon is more meditative, more of a character study, than a film interested in posing a particular hypothesis, as was JFK. (To a certain extent, anyhow – people often refer to “Oliver Stone’s conpiracy theory” regarding the JFK assassination, but when you actually watch the film, no real, concrete hypothesis is ever actually advanced.)

Nixon seems generally focused on the way that the very strengths, or gifts, or skills that allowed Richard Nixon to ascend to the highest political office in the United States were the ones that brought about his downfall. A “tragic hero” will often have a bunch of good qualities, and one not-so-good quality that causes everything to fall apart. Nixon, however? His power came via his paranoia, and deserted him by the same route.

The film opens with a brief educational film about salesmanship (“What you’ve got to remember, Bob, is that you’re selling yourself!”), and then we’re into the story proper. The overall device of the film is Nixon, alone in his study during a series of nights toward the end of his Presidency, reflecting on the events of his past, most often by listening to his infamous tapes of his Oval Office conversations. The film is told in a series of flashbacks, then, and not always in the real order of events, but in the more real way in which we tend to remember things: the memories that surface as they seem relevant to the events of our present-day lives. At times, Nixon is remembering past political events, and at others, he is remembering past personal moments with Pat, the love of his life.

To me, the question of authenticity with regard to a film like this misses the point. I remember watching discussions of the film on news shows when it came out, back in 1995, and the topic always seemed to revolve around the extent to which Stone captured the “real Nixon”. Some folks attacked the film on that basis, others praised it; I remember one commentator – I think it may have been Bryant Gumbel – who said, “I don’t think it’s the Nixon, but rather a Nixon”. That seems pretty astute to me. Those closest to Richard Nixon seemed fairly adamant that Stone did not depict the “real Nixon”, but even those closest to us don’t know our real selves as well as they might think. Is Stone’s Nixon a “real” Nixon? I suspect that he captures some of Nixon’s qualities well, others not so well. I also suspect that Stone emphasizes some of Nixon’s qualities a bit in the interest of making a better movie. I think that Nixon is to Richard Nixon as Henry V is to King Henry the Fifth.

Of special interest to me when I watched Nixon a couple of weeks ago was the way no one ever really spells anything out directly. Nixon himself seems to be talking in code with his assistants much of the time, and at no point does anyone say, “Hey, we should break into the DNC offices at the Watergate and see what we can find out.” At no point does Nixon say, “We need to cover this up!” Everything is happening, or has already happened. This plays into one of Stone’s themes of the film, which is stated outright in the scene of the odd moment (which really happened) when Nixon left the White House in the middle of the night, went to the Lincoln Memorial, and ended up interacting with the protesting kids there. Referring to the war, one girl says: “You can’t stop it, can you? You’re powerless.”

Stone conveys this as well with a lot of fascinating cinematography. As in JFK< he employs a lot of different looks and styles throughout the film, sometimes shooting things "straight", while other times using black-and-white, or making the film very grainy in spots, or using lots of fades and superimpositions of stock footage to convey the magnitude of the issues Richard Nixon faced or the hugeness of his character. In many "Presidential" films or teevee shows, such as The American President or The West Wing, the White House is shot as a beautiful place where our patriotism and commitment to democracy is literally made physical. No so in Nixon; the White House here is an ominous place, and place of fear and dread in the face of historical forces that cannot be tamed.

Stone often frames scenes from odd angles, and many scenes depict dark shadows contrasting with brilliant light streaming in through windows. An early scene shows Nixon in his personal study, sitting beside a roaring fireplace while the air conditioning is on at full blast.

Nixon seems increasingly shocked, over the course of the film, to learn just how little control even a President gets to have over the forces around him, and by the time he really comes to grips with this, he is on the brink of ending his Presidency. Even late in that particular game, though, he continues to assert that a lack of control was what got them, in the end: “We never got our story out,” he says to Alexander Haig. Nixon relishes the moments, all too few, when he gets to feel as though he is in control, such as when he puts a wealthy donor in his place or chews out Henry Kissinger. But he also reacts with increasing anger when his efforts at control fail, such as when a press conference goes awry or when his own wife tries to criticize him over dinner.

That brings me to the film’s central relationship, that of the marriage of Richard and Pat Nixon. It’s really an amazing relationship, as movie marriages go; it is not depicted as a relationship of blind love that is independent of everything else in Richard Nixon’s life, nor is it depicted as Pat’s Lady Macbeth to Richard’s Macbeth, with Pat being ambitious and desiring of power all her own and only being in the marriage because it’s the best route for a woman to real power in mid-20th century America. Pat Nixon is shown as being literally the only person in Richard’s life who is ever willing to criticize him or tell him when he’s wrong, but she is also there for him through everything, except for one brief period when she considers divorce. Even then, however, Richard brings her back from the brink, and even after all of her disgust during the long unfolding of Watergate, when Richard at last stands alone in the White House on that last night of his Presidency, ruined and emotionally drained and devastated, it’s Pat who comes to him and gives him the only consistent shoulder he’s ever known on which to lean.

Nothing in this movie would work without some great performances by the cast, and there isn’t a single weak link among them. Stone assembles an astonishing supporting cast here; so much so that if this movie had been made in the 1970s, the posters would have included one of those rows of thumbnail photos of the stars along the bottom. James Woods, Bob Hoskins, M. Emmet Walsh, Saul Rubinek, EG Marshall, Madeleine Kahn, Tony Goldwyn, Mary Steenburgen, David Hyde Pierce, Ed Harris, and the like – Nixon might be the single most star-studded film of the 1990s to not feature Kevin Bacon in any role at all. But the two performances that center the film, that absolutely ground it, are Joan Allen as Pat Nixon, and Anthony Hopkins as Richard.

The film made a pretty wise choice as regards the “look” of Richard Nixon. They didn’t go overboard in trying to make Hopkins look like the genuine article; they gave him roughly the same haircut and I assume some prosthetic teeth to make his smile look more Nixonian, but after that, they relied on Hopkins to do it all through the magic of acting. He plays Nixon as a somewhat hunched-over, physically awkward, gravelly-voiced man who never seems to exude much by way of charisma, but rather gets what he wants from others because he simply won’t accept anything else. Nixon is a bundle of nervous energy, and Hopkins plays him as a man who sweats too much, grins at odd moments, and can’t figure out what to do with his own hands.

Hopkins’s performance is endlessly fascinating to me, coming as it does in the same period as a number of other performances by him that are all unique: there is nothing of Hannibal Lecter to be found in Hopkins’s Richard Nixon; nor is there to found any of Mr. Ludlow from Legends of the Fall, CS Lewis from Shadowlands, or anyone else. Hopkins’s Nixon is really a singular creation, so much so that the spell is actually broken twice over the course of the film, both involving Oliver Stone’s use of archival footage from the Nixon years. One is of a Nixon mask, being paraded about at a protest rally; the features are distorted, but we can still see that it’s a mask of the real Nixon; the other is at the very end of the movie, when Stone shows us footage of the real Mr. And Mrs. Nixon walking to Marine One for their final departure from the White House.

Joan Allen’s Pat Nixon is equally remarkable, because hers is a quieter performance as the only person who gets to talk back to Dick Nixon and not only get away with it but be able to stick around afterwards. She is, by turns, thrilled by him, devoted to him, angered by him, disgusted with him, and in the end, deeply empathetic to him. We can see the pain on her face when she sees him, alone in the White House, talking to the portrait of John F. Kennedy, in one of the film’s finest moments (“When they look at you, they see what they want to be. When they look at me, they see what they are.”) The keenest moment of insight as to Nixon’s character – as the film depicts it – comes when Dick is gearing up for his 1968 run for President, six years after he’s sworn to Pat that he’s done running for office. She is angry that he has been making plans without telling her, but she still feels the old hunger and the pain from the last two losing campaigns has mostly faded, so she is willing to stand with him once again – in fact, she even hungers for it herself, telling him “This time, we’re gonna win. I can feel it.” And Dick takes her in his arms and dances, in the best Nixonian fashion: awkwardly and gracelessly.

John Williams’s score for Nixon is, to my mind, one of his more underrated efforts. He juxtaposes a cheerfully optimistic Americana sound with more downbeat and dark music as Nixon begins to spiral out of control. Stone closes the film with a musical choice that seems odd, at first, but is really amazingly fitting: the Mormon Tabernacle Choir’s a capella rendition of Shenandoah. There isn’t much in the film by way of period popular music, as instead Stone relies on Williams’s sound world to help immerse us in the world of Dick Nixon.

As with JFK, a companion book was released for Nixon, containing the film’s screenplay, a number of archival documents (including transcriptions of the Nixon tapes), and essays by the filmmakers, historians, and figures from the Nixon administration (John Dean and E. Howard Hunt). Here is an excerpt from an essay by Christopher Wilkinson, one of the film’s writers:

The more we got to know Nixon, the more it struck us how odd he was. He was a man who referred to himself in the third person and called his wife “Buddy”. He was physically awkward, socially graceless, and sexually repressed. Other than Bebe Rebozo, he had no real friends. When he needed to relax, he would just sit silently with Rebozo. For hours. Bob Haldeman was with him for nearly twenty years and never shook his hand.

The was a strange man, an extremely strange and mysterious man.

I cannot remember the precise moment when we started to empathize with Nixon. To begin to understand the tragedy of his life. To appreciate the true dimensions of his character.

Nixon came from nothing – the wrong schools, the wrong clothes, the wrong parents – and, by dint of hard work and self-sacrifice, rose to the heights. In many ways he is the American Dream incarnate, the self-made man who tortured himself to be a Somebody. And he never gave up. He came off the canvas again and again, rehabilitating himself, reinventing himself. Admittedly, the notion of Nixon the Indestructible is often trotted out to evoke sympathy for him.

But it’s true.

There are other poignant and peculiar details that reached us, that slowly eroded our contempt. The emotionally distant mother who rarely touched him. The brutish father who directed fits of blind rage at him. The lonely, clumsy boy who was sure that no matter what he did, he would never be good enough.

And the dead brothers. First his beloved little Arthur. Then Harold, outgoing, attractive, a boy Richard idolized. A boy whose lingering death allowed the family to afford Richard’s tuition to law school.

The guilt.

When Nixon fell in love with Pat, he drove her on dates with other boys to prove himself to her. He wore her down with a barrage of flowers and letters. He would do whatever it took to win her and he never let up until she was his.

Classic Nixon.

The only clean campaign he ever ran was 1960. Kennedy (like Harold) was everything Nixon was not – handsome, charming, articulate, witty. Nixon could have used any number of smear tactics against him; the religion, the Mob connections, the women. But he didn’t. He respected Jack Kennedy more than any opponent he had ever faced. So, for the only time in his political life, Nixon played it straight.

And Kennedy stole the election from him.

The fact that he didn’t completely come apart during the crushing pressure of the final days of Watergate is a testament to his bullheaded resolve. To his perverse brand of courage. Everyone was against him. The country wanted his head on a pike and he wouldn’t give it to them. A lesser man might have run screaming and drooling down Pennsylvania Avenue. Or had a stroke. Or committed suicide. But not Nixon. He wouldn’t give them the satisfaction.

As President, he did more to desegregate the schools than any of his predecessors. He created the first and most effective Environmental Protection Agency. He has few (if any) Presidential peers in foreign policy: the spectacular opening of China, achieving detente with the Russians. Accomplishments that Nixon, the quintessential Commie hunter, was uniquely suited for. If a liberal Democratic President had tried it, he would have been crucified.

And Nixon would have brought the nails.

Nixon stretched our idea of what greatness is. He is a huge character who embraces the entire American landscape from its loftiest ambitions to its most malignant schemes. To understand Nixon is to understand what we have been. To understand Nixon’s destiny is to understand what has happened to us. To understand Nixon’s life is to understand the history of our times.

What strikes me now, on reflection, is the way the Nixon political playbook has come to dominate American politics in our day, forty years after Nixon held office, with its dirty tricks and coded appeals to our baser instincts. But Nixon’s actual policy goals now form the farthest boundary to the left that our politics are willing to allow voice. It’s amazing to me that if a Republican candidate came along now, espousing Richard Nixon’s policy goals, that candidate wouldn’t even make it out of the primaries. Things that a Republican President did forty years ago would be labeled as unforgivably liberal — Socialist, even — if a Democrat did them today.

What a great, disturbing film this is. Just like Richard Nixon himself.

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3 Responses to “He’s the darkness, reaching out for the darkness.”

  1. Roger Owen Green says:

    I eally disliked Nixon, the guy, but I thought the film made him oddly sympathetic. And you're right: Nixon in 2010 would be considered the communist he was always fighting.

  2. Potty Mouth says:

    A great and disturbing film indeed, and a wonderfully written essay.

  3. Unknown says:

    What a great post. Thank you. Had never read what the scriptwriter had said about Nixon either. Such an interesting and complicated man. Understanding him completely is something no one will ever be able to do.

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