Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Shakespearean Drama of Richard Nixon

There are many things about 1995 that I simply do not remember.

In hindsight, I guess that is to be expected. In May of that year, my mother was killed in a flash flood; after that, many things that happened in the world in the second half of that year simply didn't happen, as far as I was concerned.

By the end of the year, I guess, I was regaining my footing. And, in December, I went to see a movie I had been anticipating for quite awhile — Oliver Stone's "Nixon" starring Anthony Hopkins.

The movie actually premiered 15 years ago today — but I have rarely gone to see a movie on its first day, even when I was a teenager. In those days, when one saw a movie was often considered more important than actually seeing it.

I went to see it a few days after Christmas. It's safe to say Christmas was a difficult holiday in my family that year, and it is equally safe to say I was preoccupied with other matters until Christmas was over. But I did see the movie before the new year began.

I was a fan of Oliver Stone's work long before "Nixon" came out. And I will concede that he is probably the most overtly political filmmaker of our time.

What's more, he is clearly associated with the left–leaning political elements in America, and, presumably because of that, it was generally accepted that any biopic Stone would do on Nixon would be exceedingly negative.

I wanted to see it with my father, who remembered not only Nixon's presidency but his vice presidency as well. Oh, and he hated Nixon, too. (I think I may have mentioned that from time to time.)

Well, that, he said, was precisely why he wouldn't go see the movie.

"I hated Nixon so much," he told me over dinner one night, "that I won't go see it even though they trash him in it."

After Nixon resigned, I don't think Dad ever thought about him again — unless he was forced to do so, like when Nixon did his famous post–presidency interview with David Frost or when he had a stroke and lapsed into a coma — and died shortly thereafter.

Personally, I didn't feel that Nixon was "trashed" in the movie. Maybe that was Stone's intention — and maybe my response was all cockeyed — but I found myself sympathizing with Nixon — the dutiful son craving his mother's approval, the vice presidential nominee chastened by attacks on his integrity, the gubernatorial candidate who lashes out at the press on Election Night, the president who wrestles daily with his inner demons.

Nixon's story — how he achieved his heart's desire only to see it slip through his fingers and crash on the floor — was a drama of truly Shakespearean proportions.

I don't agree with most of the things Nixon said. I still oppose many of his policies. But the movie didn't really explore the political side. It explored the darker, human side, the side where doubt and personal recrimination dwell.

I think there is at least a little of that in every human heart. Most people manage to rise above it to a certain degree, but Nixon may represent the opposite extreme. The dark side had its way within him so often they could have played "Darth Vader's theme" instead of "Hail to the Chief" when he entered a room.

We are truly the sum of our individual experiences, and sometimes that can be seen in unpleasant ways. More than anything, that may have been Stone's message.

The Nixon who blithely approved the Watergate coverup was driven, perhaps subliminally, by his memories of past humiliations — of his losing campaign for governor 10 years earlier and his desire never to experience defeat again, whether by a wide margin as in 1962 or a much narrower margin, as was the case in the 1960 presidential election — and those experiences had been, in turn, shaped by the perceived lessons that had been learned 10 years before that when Nixon resisted the attempt to have him dropped from the national ticket or a couple of years earlier, when Nixon was the beneficiary of the rough and tumble of high–stakes political campaigns.

An experience like asking viewers to express their support for keeping him on the ticket was another humiliation Nixon was not eager to duplicate.

At each juncture in his life, he was presented as a "new" Nixon — that may be the most persistent memory I have of Nixon, that he was constantly trying to reinvent himself — but it was always the same Nixon underneath.

I still hate Nixon — thanks mostly to my parents' influence, I suppose — but I feel that I understand him better for having seen Stone's film. That may be an unintended consequence.

Granted, Stone took what could be called poetic license with both his film about Nixon and his earlier film about the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Neither could be called a literal history. Some events were not presented chronologically; others were condensed and/or combined, primarily (I presume) in the interest of brevity and, perhaps, more palatable ratings.

(Beware, high school or college students working on research papers about Kennedy or Nixon: Do not use these films as resources. They are dramatizations that are partly based on verifiable facts. Use those verifications as your sources.)

And I guess that would be my primary complaint about Stone's filmmaking style. His free association approach could lead to misinterpretation of the events, to say the least.

It was something that had to be done, really. You couldn't tell the story of Watergate — let alone the story of Nixon's life — in a few hours. You had to hit the high points and merge other things.

But a few things were given a pretty accurate — and seemingly complete — treatment.

Like, for example, Nixon's visit to the Lincoln Memorial in the wee hours of May 9, 1970, only days after four students were killed in an antiwar demonstration at Kent State University.

That visit to the Lincoln Memorial really did happen. I couldn't swear that the conversation that was shown in the film was, word for word, the conversation that took place — although I know that Nixon did have the conversation about Syracuse football.

On that occasion, Nixon spoke with a group of young people who were preparing to participate in an antiwar demonstration in Washington. I've heard varying accounts of that meeting, and it struck me that Stone's re–creation was as faithful a retelling as one could expect.

Nixon, as we all know, secretly recorded Oval Office conversations, but no one, to my knowledge, was carrying a portable tape recorder at the Lincoln Memorial.

But, clearly, there were composite scenes in "Nixon," like the scene where Nixon discusses payment for Howard Hunt with his aides, then has his conversation with Bob Haldeman about opening up the "whole Bay of Pigs thing."

Without going into much detail, any student of Watergate can tell you that such scenes are not literal retellings, merely combining known events.

I guess it also takes for granted that a viewer is fairly well acquainted with the story of Richard Nixon and the Watergate coverup.

But that's a pretty broad assumption, don't you think? It's been more than 35 years now since Nixon resigned, but, in my experience, most people still don't understand many things about Watergate or what drove Nixon to do the things he did.

I understand that. Watergate was a complex event. Nixon was a complex man. People my age and younger have no memory of the days when Nixon was vice president, when he was involved in some rather clandestine dealings.

As much as there is a desire for a simple answer to why things happened the way they did, I'm afraid there isn't one.

But perhaps the final scene of "Nixon" comes as close to truth as is possible.

I remember watching Nixon's farewell address on the morning of his resignation.

Stone's version was abbreviated — which was just as well, I suppose, since I wondered as I watched the speech if Nixon was about to lose his grip on reality.

He didn't, of course. Instead, he provided, perhaps unknowingly, a moment of keen insight into his own personality when he told his staff never to be bitter or petty. "Remember," he said, "others may hate you, but those who hate you don't win unless you hate them — and then you destroy yourself."

I thought Hopkins did a remarkable job of re–creating that blinding moment of clarity in Nixon's presidency — in the very last minutes of his presidency.

Shakespeare himself probably couldn't have written a more compelling tragedy.