Movie. Nixon, 1995.

Posted by T on January 30, 2007
By Title, Movies

This is Oliver Stone’s spin on Nixon.

The movie does to Nixon what Amadeus did to Mozart: fabricates an interesting character that, unfortunately, has precious little to do with the real one it alleges to be modeled after.

Of course, the raw facticity is there in both movies: at issue is the composite painting of a personality.

Stone’s thesis is that Nixon had a complex of guilt and wanting to be loved that stemmed from his relationship to his self-righteous, Quaker mother. But the desire to be loved is closely akin to self-love, and drove Nixon to become ruthless in the pursuit of power, including pathological lying and murder.

To make the murder charge stick, Stone plays up not only the bombing in southeast Asia, but also a great deal of cloak-and-dagger subplot involving Cubans, the Bay of Pigs, and even the assassination of JFK (another favorite topic for Stone, of course). It’s all left rather vague. But the insinuation is clear that this is a very bad man, even if afterward you can’t quite put your finger on what Nixon actually did that was so bad (except, perhaps, the bombing — but that’s rather banal, and hardly worthy of an Oliver Stone conspiracy theory).

In parallel, a running theme throughout, and that serves as a foil for Stone’s psychologizing, is the suggestion that Nixon was envious of the political life of John Kennedy, so that this became another ghost in his mental cellar. Where Kennedy was the teflon man — nothing bad ever stuck — Nixon was the inverse — nothing good was ever credited.

The play opens and closes with the ramifications of Watergate.

Watergate is the central myth that the establishment wants us to use in evaluating Nixon.

In contrast, I take a man’s level of imputing importance to Watergate as an inverse metric of his political intelligence. Watergate was about as important as one frat house sneaking into the other frat house to steal their underwear.

Now everyone is supposed to shriek, “but the cover-up!”

My answer: but of course you should cover for your buddies, if their enemies are threatening to torture and execute them for stealing the undies of the other frat house.

Granted, Stone spins this a bit differently: Nixon is only covering up for himself, and is quite willing to throw his henchmen to the sharks to save his own skin. But I find this thesis a bit hard to swallow, given the intense loyalty that almost everyone that ever worked with Nixon developed, and which largely held to the very end. A man that acts the way Stone shows it does not develop that kind of loyalty in his lieutenants. On the other hand, in a war, there comes a time when someone might have to take a hit in order to save the team. Moreover, the tapes, though important, do not reflect all the thinking of the man– there is a difference between one’s private ruminations and one’s war-room brainstorming. In short, not only the range of possible facts but also their interpretation is far broader than propagandists like Stone seem capable of entertaining.

But getting back to the frat house rivalry… When Nixon fired Cox, news anchor John Chancellor announced that evening, “the country tonight is in the midst of what may be the most serious constitutional crisis in its history.”

And he kept a straight face while saying it!

A frat-boys prank, followed by a man trying to swat it like a pesky mosquito in order to get back to ending a complex war, is “the most serious constitutional crisis” in America’s history — far worse, apparently, than Lincoln’s blood-bath.

In reality, the “Watergate coverup” was one of the two bright spots in Nixon’s otherwise spotty and often unprincipled career. The other bright spot was exposing Alger Hiss.

Other than those two shining moments, you have removal of the final link to the gold standard, the massive expansion of Great Society welfare, price controls, playing footsie with communists, elevating internationalists Arthur Burns to the Fed and Henry Kissinger to the role of king-maker, and so on.

But the approved version of Nixon is just the opposite, in both the positive and the negative evaluations.

Now, Oliver Stone comes along and takes the establishment view as a given, then mixes in his conspiracy theory and freudian analysis. In the end, Nixon breaks down because he can’t understand why no one appreciates all the great things he has done — why everyone hates him no matter what he does.

Even though the real Nixon was probably more stoical than that, the question does merit being asked. In fact, given Nixon’s largely leftish proclivities, the hatred that was hurled at him by the establishment is rather astonishing. My own theory, and Stone seems to ratify this obliquely, is that they never could forgive him for unmasking Hiss. In fact, Stone (in the commentary track) goes so far as to say that Nixon planted false evidence– which I have never heard, and am quite sure, based on my reading of the case, must be a pure slander.

The conviction of Alger Hiss drove the radical left into the Democratic Party, and permanently finished off the Communist Party in the USA as a viable vanguard of “progressive” thinking. The left never forgave Nixon for this, and vowed eternal wrath against him.

Nixon was right about the “silent majority.” It put him back into office in 1972 with a landslide, despite the fact that Watergate had already broken. Stone thinks the movie, twenty years later, didn’t do well because no one cared about Nixon; I tend to think it would be more accurate to say, no one cared about Stone on Nixon.

As to techné, the heavy-duty acting corp makes it interesting.

There is an extreme quantity of taking our Savior’s name in vain that is quite offensive. Is it historically accurate? I’m going to guess not. The famous “expletive deleted” of the transcripts is, I suspect, rather tame by modern standards. But my feeling is falsifiable.

For Stone, however, there is a blasphemy that is solemnly revealed and may be Nixon’s real crime that the establishment finds unforgivable: on at least two occasions, Nixon insulted the Holy Chosen People.

Like Videodrome, the Harris index breaks down here. I’m giving it a zero for the general viewer, but with the caveat that students of Stone and other cryptocracy-crackers may, and probably should give it a viewing.

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