Oliver Stone's 'Nixon' Revisited

I published a number of 'top film lists' without comment and with the thought that people would find them interesting and evocative. If I have a comment to make on these lists, it is that a film needs a moratorium of at least ten years before it should be considered for any ranking of the 'best of all time '(even if it is a bit silly to compare great films to one another for the purpose of finding the best). When asked what my favourite movie is I can't answer. I'll rhyme off a hundred of my favourite movies but I can't rank them - it's a pointless and subjective exercise. I do believe that there are superior films out there, absolutely, but I don't see the need to give them a number. Is Godfather #1 and Kane #2?! They're both spectacular in their own ways. Still, if I am to play along I would require a moratorium - what is hot and 'fresh' today might be dated and old tomorrow.

Oliver Stone's provocative political films 'JFK' and 'Nixon' are now past my moratorium and it's interesting to see how they are holding up. The other night I put on 'Nixon'.

Oliver Stone's 'Nixon' came out in 1994 and like most of Stone's films there was a storm of controversy. Stone attempts to dramatize and mythologize events in US history and is often accused of historical innacuracies and skewed politics. On a previous post I linked to a story of filmmakers responsible for aiding in the ignorance of science. Here Stone could be accused of creating ignorance of history. 'JFK' was the most glaring example of dramatic liberty, drawing on conspiracy theory in the assassination of John F Kennedy. His critics were furious that Stone creates an argument using false facts and imaginary characters and incidents. In 'Nixon', unlike 'JFK', there is a text card at the head of the film that makes it clear that the film is a work of fiction based on the true story. Events are dramatized, dialogue created and several characters are condensed into a single persona.

Personally, I have no issue with this.

Stone is not a journalist. He is not a documentary filmmaker. He is not a biographer. Oliver Stone is a filmmaker who is working through his own ideas and obsessions and creating works that are trying to speak to something greater than the subject. This is what makes 'Nixon' a magnificent film. It is a rich character study of both Nixon and the American system of government. Roger Ebert said that this film would still have been great had Nixon not existed. I agree. It is a film that strives for the tragedy of Shakespeare and the visual prowess of Citizen Kane. It is also a film that resonates with what is going on at the White House today.

In my efforts not to 'review' films I will not go into the details of the plot here. What I would like to make note of is Stone's ability to create a fully realized and complex sketch of Nixon. Stone fully acknowledges the good that Nixon did for America. Nixon ended the American involvement in the Vietnam War, created the Environmental Protection Agency and cooled off the Cold War. He had success in dividing the communist nations so America could deal with them individually instead of facing a unified front (the lack of unity is what keeps the middle east from becoming a real threat to the United States). Nixon held the cards to greatness yet he left the White House with his tail between his legs, humiliated and defeated. Stone sees the contradictions and created a film that makes Nixon into a tragic figure. The difference between tragedy and drama is that in tragedy, the protagonist is their own worst enemy. The protagonist's own character flaws end up being the architect of their own demise. With Nixon, Stone contends that the things that brought him to the White House, a man who came from humble beginnings and an 'outsider', were the things that brought him down. Nixon always felt that he was conspired against by the press and the ivy league politicians. This paranoia led to the events of Watergate and his eventual resignation from the Presidency.

Beyond Nixon himself we can see how the government itself moves forward, independent of its leadership. Nixon, no matter what he wants, has to deal with the constant machine. The machine has been running before he got there and it will continue to run after he leaves. Every president has had to compromise (right or wrong) to the wheel that is already in motion. There are institutions present that work beyond four year terms - the CIA, the FBI, the DEA, the IRS. These institutions don't easily bend to the whims of a president (a lesson that Barack Obama seems to be naive about). To gain the Presidency one must make deals and gain support from the true powers that be. Nixon, as Stone portrays him, is indebted to this system. He must compromise as all politicians and every level of government is busy protecting their own interests.

The details of the film, right or wrong, don't waiver from a truth that we can understand. I'm drawn to this film because it has an honesty to it. It doesn't demonize Nixon nor does it ex halt him. It shows that even a man who can achieve the highest goals can still be a human being - fragile, complex, contradictory. I suspect that George W will be the subject of such scrutiny. I don't believe in the archetypes. I don't think he's evil or that in his heart, he is a bad person. It's easy to create monsters. It makes it easier for us to separate ourselves from them. We stand on a soap box and scream without having to spend anytime in these men's shoes. I agree that the true hero is the one who walks the high ground and who doesn't compromise their ideals. Yet, most of us are mere humans. Flesh and blood, full of weakness and contradictions. Flawed in our own greatness. Oliver Stone seems to understand that.


Anonymous said...

I would also suggest a viewing of Robert Altman's 1984 film "Secret Honour", based on a one-man stage play and starring Philip Baker Hall as Nixon rambling about his offices, late at night, drunk and delusional, attempting to record his own version of how things went so horriby wrong with his presidency.

It's a brilliant performance by Hall and an astonishing display of storytelling, and it fits in with your observances about Stone's "Nixon" and how the mechanics of power in America rarely lie within the grasp of any single individual.

This was also apparent in "Thirteen Days", showing the conflict between the Kennedy presidency and the Pentagon. Now that I think of it, these would make good viewing collections with the Frankenheimer's "Seven Days In May".

Geez. Now I'm depressed.

Adam said...

Mark -I am just now watching the ending moments of my first viewing of Nixon. I too have been awestruck by the creative Shakespearian story rendering. I was just doing a quick google search for discussions of the film –came across yours –and had to leave a positive comment about, what I would consider to be, your excellent perspective on the film. I appreciate your thoughtful and intelligent views. Thanks for taking the time to make them.

Mark said...

Thanks Adam,

Have you seen W yet? Any thoughts on it?


Carson Lee said...

Have you seen "Frost Nixon"?
(I just discovered your blog; very interesting!)

Mark said...

I haven't seen it but have wanted to. I would also like to see the original broadcasts as well.

Neil said...

I recently happened to find "Nixon" running on cable on the tv in a hotel room, and was very glad I watched (almost all of) the film. At 59, I recall quite vividly the political environment within which Richard Nixon rose to the White House. The portrayal by Hopkins is superb, bringing to life the real individual, yet within the parameters of the story Stone wished to tell. And among other outstanding attributes, the film captures the spirit of the political times exceptionally well -- it was sort of a time machine, back to "circa 1968". Nixon was such a complex figure, and Stone has given us a work which evokes an understanding of him which accounts for most all of that complexity. Note: not necessarily "the" understanding, but "an" understanding, which after all is the point of the film-maker's art, isn't it?

Mark said...

Thanks for the comment Neil. I wasn't old enough to experience the downfall of Nixon and I have to live vicariously through films like Nixon and All the Presidents Men. It's a fascinating period in American history and I agree with your assessment of 'an understanding'. Film's greatest strength is empathy (as it story is general) and Stone gives us much empathy for this flawed man.