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Nixon

1995. Directed by Oliver Stone. With Anthony Hopkins, Joan Allen, James Woods, J.T. Walsh, Paul Sorvino


Oliver Stone's Nixon is so boisterously artificial in its form that it's hard to imagine anyone taking its content seriously as political biography. It's evident to me (but you know me . . . ) from the unabashed process shots, double-exposures, transparently faked newsreel footage, Citizen Kane references, the use of normal-looking color footage alternating with black & white, negative, footage running backward, slow motion, and mocked-up video, that Stone is more interested in how the media construct and construe political careers than he is in the specifics of the Nixon administration. People who accuse Stone of fictionalizing history are missing the point: in his opinion, history is fiction to begin with.

Nixon contains many conventionally-written, traditionally-edited and naturalistically-performed sequences, but this is not an illusion-of-life movie for more than a few minutes at a stretch. Before we can settle into the belief that we're eavesdropping on real life, some attention-grabbing cinematic device reminds us not just that we're watching a movie but that we are under constant bombardment from sophisticated media of all kinds.

Even when Stone's camera is behaving itself and the editing is of the classic "invisible" sort, the characters themselves keep us at arm's length. No performance is noticeably stylized, but none is really straightforward either. Stone seems to be experimenting with something new: audience-participation performance. The actors supply only half the characterization; our own memories of Nixon cronies and family do the rest. My husband calls this cameo-by-mimesis, an odd combination of guest appearance and impersonation. I can't imagine that the characters of John Dean, H. R. Haldeman, Martha Mitchell, et. al. would be interesting to a viewer who didn't already "know" them from 20 years ago. Notice that the opening credits list not just the names of the actors but the names of the characters alongside; two parallel cast lists.

This becomes clear at the end, when Stone lets the real Nixon make an appearance. It seems an odd departure: throughout the film, Stone has unapologetically dolled-up newsreels with reverse shots of his own actors (Hopkins/Nixon debating Kennedy/Kennedy, for example), but here he uses the intact footage of the Nixons leaving the White House by plane. As soon as we get a glimpse of Nixon himself—far more attractive than Hopkins's hunched beetle of a man, inimitable in his strange body language--the Hopkins performance snaps into focus. A kind of superimposition takes place, like those computer programs that morph two faces together. You say to yourself, "Oh, yeah: Nixon!" It's probably the most successful conflation of the actual and the fictitious that the movies have yet achieved, even in this age of docu-drama (though it probably won't outlive those of us who watched tv nonstop throughout the spring of 1974).

It's interesting to compare Nixon to Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, another movie about the intersection of politics and the media. Capra spent a lot of time showing microphones, a newsreel photographer cranking a camera, people gathered around their radios, newspapers being printed and distributed. Stone, in this much savvier age, can make the same points more efficiently. Instead of showing us the machinery that records and disseminates images, he incorporates those images directly into his narrative, telling story through bits of newsreel footage, home movies, tv kinescopes, political advertisements, promotional films, etc. He is thus able to collapse a whole step, and to give us a first-hand, rather than a once-removed, experience of politics-as-construction.

I don't share the indignation of many editorialists about the damage Stone has done to the "historical record." The message of Nixon is that with public figures, especially certain politicians, there isn't any "real" version of events. There are just stories--some put out by press secretaries, some by long-time enemies, some by the Eastern Establishment press, some by loyal family members. Stone has every right to speculate and interpolate around material of this kind. He's contributing to an ongoing process.

I certainly don't agree that this movie recklessly charges that Richard Nixon was involved in the Kennedy assassination. I don't think this little plot stream is meant to be taken literally. It's rather a way of conveying directly to today's audiences the fervid nightmare atmosphere of conspiracy that was so much a part of the Nixon era. The character played by Larry Hagman, a shadowy right-wing Texan with Mob connections, is the 90s bogeyman, our equivalent of the evil communist sympathizer or, alternatively, the paranoid red-baiter. The Kennedy assasination is, in some ways, our generation's Hiss case: endlessly debated, hinting at subterranean evil, bringing credit to no one. Oliver Stone's own reputation as a conspiracy nut adds another layer to this movie's complex interactions among subject, filmmaker, and audience.

(1/13/1997)

 

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copyright ©2005 Barbara Bernstein