NIXON (1995)

In a review of Richard Loncraine's wonderful film version of Richard III, Newsweek was unashamed to label William Shakespeare "the Oliver Stone of his day." Entertainment Weekly, in their rave review of Nixon, unabashedly dubbed the film "Shakespearean." After 30 minutes of his trademark rant on CNN's Crossfire, conservative columnist Robert Novak summed up his intense dislike of Nixon (and Stone films in general) with the following dubious criticism: "What is Stone trying to do here? Turn Nixon into Richard III?" What can all these comparisons mean? Is Oliver Stone, the melancholy prince of Hollywood, really our postmodern Bard? If so, why did partisan politics so thoroughly taint the national reception to Stone's important film? Why was Nixon another artistic casualty of the Culture Wars?

Granted, much of the Shakespeare comparison is stock media hyperbole for the Current Big Thing. Most of Oliver Stone's output is as far from William Shakespeare's as Conan the Barbarian is from the Tempest, or, for that matter, Clintonian America from Elizabethan England. Still the critical response of conservative circles to Nixon recalls a similar backlash in Elizabethan times to Shakespeare's works. In his own day, each of Shakespeare's history plays were greeted with hoots of derision from both purists and partisans. The purists often had a solid case -- for example, the real Richard III had neither a deformity nor a depravity. The partisans, aligned closely with the purists, expressed dismay for other motives. Although Shakespeare enjoyed the favor of both Queen Elizabeth and King James in his time, many in their courts often disagreed with either his subject matter or his political humor and expressed little regard for the Bard and his work.

In the eyes of modern partisans, Oliver Stone went from conspiracy nut and minor irritant to Public Enemy Number One with his film before Nixon, Natural Born Killers. Senator and then-Candidate Bob Dole's well-publicized "nightmare of depravity" review consolidated conservative critics against the film. It's too bad Dole hadn't seen it, since Natural Born Killers worked well as a social satire, acutely diagnosing the logical consequences of our violence-saturated cable culture. Before William Bennett could begin to point his virtuous finger at television talk shows, Stone's NBK has cleverly skewered the networks for their part in our current national crisis, widespread community erosion.

Having set their hearts against Natural Born Killers, it seems many conservatives never thought to give Nixon a chance. Dismissing both Stone's extensively researched bibliography and the dramatic disclaimer at the opening of the film, the purists contradicted themselves disputing minor offenses, such as "Nixon didn't drink!" or "Nixon drank scotch instead of gin!" (In fact, dramatic license also worked to Nixon's advantage -- in the film, his days as a rabidly anticommunist Senator are a virtual whitewash.) Ironically, many conservatives, deterred from purist arguments by Stone's bibliography, could only express their distaste for Nixon by comparing it to Shakespeare.

And the film? Using uncharacteristic self-restraint to mitigate his normal multimedia onslaught, Stone paints a surprisingly compassionate picture of Richard Nixon. Stone's aim is not to humiliate Nixon -- why bother? He's already our blackest of political sheep -- but to humanize him. In so doing, Nixon offers the public a much needed civic catharsis, helping us to come to terms with the man who fostered so much of our corrosive hand-me-down government pessimism.

Candid, compassionate, and cleansing, Nixon is an impressive work of historical drama, long needed to help expunge the Watergate shadow from our political culture and restore optimism to the civic arena. One wonders if the Bard could have possibly done it better.

[First appeared in Harvard Independent, 1995.]

Update: Many historians, among them the late Nixon biographer Stephen Ambrose (who has his own historical sins to answer for) have faulted Stone's view of history in Nixon, most notably his blatant conspiracy theorizing (which has been since disproved) about the eighteen and a half-minute gap. Fair enough. I appreciate Nixon for its entertainment value and its dramatic ruminations -- it's Fall of the House of Usher filtered through the White House and Watergate. If you want to know more about the real Richard Nixon, read a book.

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