Had He Ever Been Loved: The Tragic Failure of Oliver Stone’s NIXON

"For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and forfeit his soul?”

“This film is an attempt to understand the truth of Richard Nixon, the 37th President of the United States. It is based on numerous public sources and on an incomplete historical record. In consideration of length, events and characters have been condensed and some scenes among protagonists have been hypothesized or condensed.” – The opening title card to Oliver Stone’s Nixon

Oliver Stone’s skin had toughened following the critical attacks on JFK, but he certainly wasn’t going to let his detractors slow him down creatively.

Though he’d return to his Saigon stomping grounds with the beautiful, oft-overlooked box office bomb, Heaven & Earth (completing the director’s unplanned Vietnam trilogy with Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July), his entire career would turn on a dime thanks to Natural Born Killers. Hacking Quentin Tarantino’s original script to shreds with the help of first time screenwriter David Veloz, and rebuilding it from scratch (though much of Tarantino’s dialogue naturally remained), the movie is a carnal mash-up of ultra-violence and raw sexuality, while also acting as a blatant, over-the-top critique of grotesque, American tabloid media culture. In an admirable moment of magnanimity, Tarantino (who was relegated to a “Story By” credit per WGA ruling) urged audiences to see the movie, saying:

“If you like my stuff, you might not like this movie. But if you like his stuff, you're probably going to love it. It might be the best thing he's ever done, but not because of anything to do with me.”

To be honest, it doesn’t matter who wrote the damn thing, as the aesthetic mix of blown out photography, black and white film stock, animation, sitcom recreation and hallucinogenic stage play (all of which would often appear in the same scene, thanks to a flurry of editing choices) is what most are going to take away from the two-hour trip through psilocybin insanity. Controversial to its core, Natural Born Killers was trimmed by four minutes by the MPAA in order to avoid an NC-17 rating (an extended cut was released by Vidmark and Pioneer Entertainment in 1996) and helped inspire numerous copycat crimes, including the Columbine High School shooting. Stone had channeled Arthur Penn for a new generation of psycho lovers, yet inadvertently stigmatized himself again while doing so. His image as the paranoid, anti-authority conspiracy nut now had a body count associated with it in the eyes of the public – a tough rap to shake for any filmmaker. It was time to regroup.

So what’s a controversy-courting director to do after creating what The New Yorker infamously dubbed “the most radical film any major studio has released since A Clockwork Orange”? Natural Born Killers was a modest success thanks to the press, but Stone required a project to help balance out his cemented radical image; prestige to wash the acidic taste his last film left in the mouths of Middle America. That didn’t mean he was going to completely jettison his edge, just that the end result needn’t be as forceful as his last trip behind the lens.

Elaine Dutka’s September 24, 1995 story for the Los Angeles Times (“Wrestling Nixon’s Demons”) recounts Billy Wilder approaching Oliver Stone at a dinner party. Wilder was intrigued by the director’s motivations behind making a movie that chronicled the notorious 37th President of the United States. Stone simply replied to the legendary filmmaker:

“Nixon is the most important political figure in the second half of the 20th Century. He tore the country apart and nearly presided over a civil war.”

However, those looking for a damning of Tricky Dick when Stone’s film finally hit theaters that December were sorely disappointed, as Nixon is arguably his most loving movie; an empathetic portrait of an imperfect man who never saw himself as more than a tackling dummy on the Whittier College football team. Brought to life by Anthony Hopkins, Stone’s version of Richard Milhous Nixon is driven by equal parts fear, rage, sadness and an overwhelming desire to win the hearts of everyone he comes across, despite doubting that he is worthy of the affection his wife, Patricia (Joan Allen, in the most magnificent performance of her career), unconditionally gifts him every day. Stone’s sympathies are with this devil, a two-bit crook who let the dark side of America’s political machine rob him of his soul.

Like JFK, Nixon was attacked from the moment Stone announced his plans to helm the biopic. Just as publications had obtained an early draft of his assassination conspiracy detective story, Newsweek and several other organizations ran articles outlining early drafts of the script. Specifically outraging to these outlets was a plotline in which Nixon chartered a “hit squad” made up of mafiosos, CIA agents and Cuban ex-pats to kill John F. Kennedy as a means to pave his road into the White House. The mission is never carried out, but the implication was enough to enrage historians like Herbert Parmet (author of Richard Nixon and His America), who condemned the movie almost a full year before release. “I guess they waited until he died to come out with this nonsense,” Parmet publicly commented. Stone, of course, refuted these allegations, calling them “sensationalized” misrepresentations of the actual movie he was attempting to make.

Two days before Nixon was slated for limited rollout, the family of the disgraced President released a statement, labeling the movie a “reprehensible” attempt to “defame and degrade President and Mrs. Nixon’s memories in the mind of the American public.” “Character assassination” they called it. The comments were again based on the reading of a published script obtained by Nixon’s daughters, Tricia Nixon Cox and Julie Nixon Eisenhower. It seemed that the Kennedy assassination plot remained, despite early criticisms (and does, indeed, exist in the final cut of the film – though the apparatus was originally intended to eliminate Fidel Castro). Softening his stance ever so slightly, Stone responded that he “understood the distress” the movie caused the family, but again assured them (and, in turn, the public) that his film was more focused on obtaining “a fuller understanding of the life and career of Richard Nixon.”

Unlike JFK, Nixon is not interested in holding an audience member’s hand. There is no Jim Garrison surrogate character; entering a world he doesn’t comprehend, stuffed to the gills with classified information. If anything, Nixon is the filmic fleshing out of the secret docs Garrison is denied by his government – immersing us in a world of shadowy hallways and shady cover-ups. At its center is a man who initially appears to be the fallen ruler of this ornate Hellscape, but who is actually revealed to be nothing more than a cog, ground down to dust by the supremacies he thought he’d be able to control. Though it may seem like a glaring cliché the second it pops up on screen, Stone again lets his lack of subtlety telegraph what’s about to unfold over the next three and a half hours. A passage from the Gospel of Mark comes directly after the disclaimer that heads this article: "For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and forfeit his soul?” This is the American lion’s den, and we’re about to see a man be eaten alive.

It’d be simplest to refer to the way Nixon’s life is rolled out before us as a succession of “episodes” (some of which are quite manic), but the more accurate descriptor feels like a procession of “hauntings.” Stone’s Nixon is a man who can never let go of anything – grudges, the past, secrets – and they all seem to come swirling over him in Wellesian waves, to the point that time intermingles and jaggedly jumps back and forth. We begin on the eve of dishonor, as Nixon drunkenly listens to one of his coveted secret tapes, knowing full well he is going to have to resign. It’s 1974, and the storm clouds that’d been brewing outside of the White House (in the form of multiple scandals and an escalated war with no real chance of victory) have now erupted, and are threatening to beat down its doors. The Watergate scandal has gone public, arrests have been made, and connections lead back to the 37th President of the United States. We’re essentially in the same territory as Donald Freed and Arnold Stone’s Secret Honor, only this monologue isn’t going to be contained to a single room.

1960 is the first stop this cinematic time machine makes – after John F. Kennedy “stole” the election and Nixon flailed to keep himself afloat in rough political waters. After losing the 1962 California gubernatorial race, Nixon gave his “final” press conference, declaring, “you don’t have Nixon to kick around any more.” With one sweaty-lipped line, we immediately get to the heart of how Richard Milhous Nixon feels about himself; a constant loser – beaten, battered and bruised by a press and public who only want to smear his good name. Stone’s Nixon is a nervous, stammering mess of a man; a caricature any Youtube video will refute in three seconds. But again, Stone and Hopkins are chasing the essence, not an imitation, and spirit is sometimes a hard thing to capture without exaggeration.

Stone then pulls back even wider, transporting the audience (via gorgeously lensed black and white photography by regularcollaborator Robert Richardson) to Whittier, California during the 1920s. It’s here that young Dick Nixon (portrayed by Corey Carrier at 12; David Barry Gray at 19) picked up his first ghosts. His older brother, Harold (Tony Goldwyn), was a strapping, handsome lad who wanted nothing more than for their father, Frank (Tom Bower), to help him buy a new suit for the promenade. But Frank – an impoverished grocer proud enough of his profession to wear his apron at the dinner table – instructs his boys that they have to “work” for everything that they get, all whilst their “saint” of a zealot mother, Hannah (Mary Steenburgen, speaking in antiquated “thees” and “thous”), requests that they pray for God’s aid. It’s this clash of the calloused and the divine that wrestles inside of Dick Nixon’s belly, as his father harps that he’s never labored enough, and his mother promises God’s Eye has chosen him for greater things. “Strength in this life, happiness in the next,” Hannah says to her son after Harold dies of tuberculosis. Like the country that saw their Boy King taken away from them with a single “Magic Bullet”, so did Dick Nixon. It’s his destiny to rise up in his brother’s wake and lead.

Much how Jim Garrison had his eyes opened to the ways in which Kennedy was such a threat to invisible power structures, Stone is opting to reveal to the audience how JFK’s death rewrote the entire history of the United States. Richard Nixon was a cartographer for this crash course by buying into the establishment’s mechanisms. The Director of the CIA, Richard Helms (Sam Waterston), holds classified documents, detailing a Cuban assassination deal the President was tangled up in with the mob and big business (both of whom Nixon may have been in rooms with while Kennedy’s murder was quietly discussed); one of several deals the President made with the status quo devil. When students are shot at Kent State for demonstrating over the Cambodian Campaign, Nixon can only fumble and offer glad-handing instead of real answers. “You sound like you’re talking about a wild animal,” a protester says to the President on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial after he attempts to describe his own personal war with the forces that tie his hands. “Maybe I am,” he coldly responds, before being escorted away by the Secret Service. A dramatic recreation of Nixon’s real life 1970 sojourn to the iconic site, the moment reveals the man’s drastic delusions, and how reality had already distorted in his brain in order for him to evade getting blood on his hands.

This scene is also when Nixon begins to work in the ecstatic modes associated with JFK; to the point that it helps to view the picture as occurring within a shared hyper-real version of our own history. Stone isn’t so much giving a lesson as he is repurposing facts to reach for higher echelons of truth. JFK was concerned with protest – the act of questioning information being passed down by the government. Conversely, Nixon approaches the suppression of that protest, creating a character who recognized that the grievances these “young people” have with their country are valid, but also that the machine must forever roll on. “Progress is slow.” “Results take time.” “You must be patient.” They’re lines that every politician has utilized to wiggle their way out of actually providing solutions to insurmountable problems because resolution would wound the animal, possibly in a mortal fashion. The paranoia that swirled around Jim Garrison has manifested itself in the form of a President, and he feels the walls of the Oval Office closing in. Soon, everyone will be talking about the horrible things Richard Nixon’s done, and he must hear even the tiniest of whispers in order to remain on the throne.

The most intriguing element of Satan is that he was once an angel, just as Al Capone was initially a Five Points son of poor Italian immigrants. Anthony Hopkins seems to understand the tragic attributes these two gangsters possessed. That’s not to say he plays Richard Milhous Nixon like Don Vito Corleone; more an acknowledgement of the actor’s theatrical tight-rope walk between light and dark. Hopkins is portraying the character of Richard Nixon (and do not be fooled, the actor is most certainly creating a character, not playing a real person) as a fully fleshed rendition of one of the oldest archetypes. Evil was not born this way and, truth be told, may not be “evil” at all. The drama comes from the fall, and Stone’s Nixon is a cinder block, tethered to the shoes of a dead man in the Hudson Bay.

Were we not already poisoned by knowing the final act of this historical misfortune, it’d be impossible not to view the 37th First Couple (at least as seen through Stone’s lens) as perhaps the most loving pair to ever call the White House home. Every moment that Hopkins and Allen share feels like it’s pulled from some lost Sirkian romance, in which the President realizes he must become a better man to keep this absolute warrior of a woman by his side. But Joan Allen’s Patricia Nixon does not charge into battle. She knows that Dick’s a fragile beast, and that her duty is to bolster him against all odds behind closed doors. There’s chemistry between the two performers that’s positively infectious; devotion that does not stop once Tricia’s husband leaves the room. Because that’s when the praying begins – this good woman terrified her man could topple at any minute. Allen is an absolute miracle, making even the tiniest gesture count.

It doesn’t help that Nixon’s cabinet begin to see themselves more like cronies than civil servants by the end. H.R. Haldeman (James Woods) is a buzz cut sporting pit-bull, fully aware of his master’s weaknesses, but ready to tear out the throat of any who look to slap the President’s wrist. John Dean (David Hyde Pierce) is Nixon’s bagman; the lackey go-between unaware of his role until it’s too late. John Ehrlichman (JT Wash – playing against reptilian type) is the incredulous but loyal soldier, while Alexander Haig (Powers Boothe) is the murderer smiling in the corner. Henry Kissinger (Paul Sorvino, trying desperately to not slip into parody) is the rock star who may simultaneously be the ship’s leak. Together, they become a weirdly enabling posse, whom Nixon dismantles, blaming for crime after crime as he struggles to deflect any wrongdoing during his darkest days.

Tying it all together is commercial editor Hank Corwin. When the book is written on Stone’s career, it should be noted that Corwin was perhaps the director’s most important collaborator. Originally a commercial editor, Stone hired Corwin for his “chaotic mind”, as he was able to deliver as much information as possible in a sixty-second clip. Stone wanted Corwin (who reportedly drove the other editors – Joe Hutshing and Pietro Scalia – mad with his non-traditional approach) to create the film’s rhythm with his cuts, creating layers of flashbacks to drown the audience in evidence. For Nixon, Corwin (aided by Brian Berdan) again establishes flow, only now we’re moving on the drifting tides of memory. Citizen Kane-style newsreels become mini-movies, and dissolves blend all of President Nixon’s hauntings into a near formless specter. Nixon is a master-class is formal experimentation; Corwin’s splices unifying the film into a proper epic.

When the castle falls, we find there’s an eighteen-minute gap in Richard Nixon’s soul. “Can you imagine what this man could have been, had he ever been loved?” Kissinger asks another aide during one of the President’s many televised excuses for bad behavior. But that’s the question at the heart of Stone’s movie: how did a man this broken become the leader of the free world? Furthermore, did Richard Nixon blanket the globe in the failings of his father? Macro in scope yet ultimately intimate, Nixon chronicles the dissolution of a human being’s essence before our very eyes. In this sense, the 37th president becomes the ultimate Oliver Stone protagonist – a man who loses his innocence due to a war. Only Nixon’s war was with the mirror, and how much he hated the person inside of it. “When they look at you, they see what they want to be,” the President says to a portrait of John F. Kennedy, just before he resigns, “when they look at me, they see what they are.”

*Special thanks to Matthew Monagle for aiding in research for both this and the previous article on JFK

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