27 July 2009


Oliver Stone's Nixon is not much different from the Nixon portrayed in Secret Honor. Both portraits seem intended to be sympathetic, but sort of render Nixon as a helpless, solipsistic infant, obsessed with fame and his own self-mythology, and completely detached from the reality of America's politic landscape and the way that his own power works.

At the beginning of the second half of the movie, when Nixon's presidency is beginning to unravel, Nixon, played by Anthony Hopkins in a way that made me think I was watching a movie about Anthony Hopkins or Hannibal Lecter, makes a trip in the middle of the night to the Lincoln Memorial, to look at the imposing statue of one of his heroes.

In what I think is intended to be a poignant moment, Nixon sees that a group of hippie Vietnam protesters are camping out at the Lincoln Memorial for some reason and he approaches them as they watch him skeptically. After trying to banter with them about his college football days, a cute nineteen-year-old girl says "We're not here to talk about football." Nixon has a brief "duh" look and then turns on the sincerity. She challenges his power to stop the war and realizes that he can do nothing to stop the war, that it's the system, which he has lost, or never really had, control over. Then the secret service guys pull him away and he tells his main assistant guy that the girl knew something it had taken him five years in office to realize, that he has no real power.

This idea echoes the conspiracy theory presented in Secret Honor, but Stone takes it to another level. While the conspiracy theory of Secret Honor is not supposed to be necessarily fact, but a sort of distortion of Nixon's, Stone's theories stemming from 1991's JFK about J. Edgar Hoover and the CIA are presented again as history (granted there is a disclaimer at the beginning of the film saying it is a work of fiction, within the work of fiction the conspiracy theory is presented a reality). This scene is sort of a microcosm of Nixon's character as interpreted by Stone. He wants people to love him and he wants power, but in the end he has neither. He's desperate to win, whether it be the presidency or anything else, because he equates that with being loved, but he's willing to do anything to get there, which, in the end, is what brings his downfall.

Stone's Nixon worships Lincoln as a hero president, and wants to resemble him, but he's can't have that heroism because his success isn't based on a particular passion other than to gain power and to be elected. In Nixon's era--Nixon has been called the most documented president, can't remember who said that at the moment--the idea of power is supplanted by both his constituents, who no longer revere the icon of the presidency, and the behind the scenes guys, who manipulate Nixon for their own interests. Nixon's desire to be accepted by both systems prevents him from ever understanding or being accepted by either.

While the movie certainly made me think more about Nixon, it didn't introduce any more than those certain points that I talked about in my last Nixon post, those events that it seems most chronicles of Nixon's life (Checkers, his mother, the crying with Kissinger, his crappy football career, etc.) have gone back to and exploited again and again. It is extremely detailed and perhaps historically quite accurate, but Anthony Hopkins' Nixon isn't convincing to me. It's certainly not my favorite Nixon, though this might have more to do with Stone's direction. He is too obsessed with JFK and J. Edgar Hoover and the conspiracy theories of the time to pay appropriate attention to Nixon. What he wants, it seems, is for Nixon to fit into a particular world view, while giving some attention to Nixon's particular dilemma, the paradox of his outsider/insider status.

To be honest, I still prefer Frank Langella, in Frost/Nixon, perhaps because that particular movie is based more on a limited presentation of a particular historical moment, rather than gross speculation. Langella's Nixon is contained within a moment that was historically documented, with almost no editorializing and little speculation of Nixon's life beyond that television interview, which allows the subltety of Langella's performance to tell us more about the man than Stone's exhaustive exposition can.

The most thought provoking aspect of Stone's movie is probably the incredible amount of speculation presented, especially considering the vast amount of source material he had to work with (the Nixon tapes, duh). The most outrageous example is his portrait of J. Edgar Hoover as a fat cat queer running the scenes with no particular motivation besides racism and greed. Perhaps the general idea of that is true. It probably is actually. And maybe everything in the movie is true, but this is just absurd:

I guess he's just trying to entertain people and be edgy, but it just feels like silliness, and it's not edgy.

Oh, also, I've been reading some Freud essays about paranoia recently, which he attributes to latent homosexual urges (surprise!). I think it has more to with power/lack of power, which I'll talk about more in my next post, on The Assassination of Richard Nixon, which I watched in the bus back from Boston the other night, and I'll probably write about this week or next week or something. Anyway, Stone seems to agree with Freud, and maybe they're right. At least, Nixon is portrayed as having no sexual interest in women and just being generally uncomfortable around women, which is part of why he resent JFK and perhaps why he is super paranoid and obsessed with the idea that people don't take him seriously, he's being manipulated by higher forces, etc etc.

Oh, that part is interesting to, his rivalry with JFK. Basically, people loved JFK because he was cute and did it with women and knew how to talk to people and all that, and they hated Nixon because he looks kinda weird and has a pretty terrible personality. This allows Nixon to see himself as the underdog, and his whole "My father was the poorest lemon farmer in California," thing. He saw Kennedy as part of the establishment, nouveau riche and all that, though that doesn't make sense if Nixon was sort of aware that he was going to be assassinated, which the movie implies.

Oh, I'm obviously getting bored/rushing this post, but two more things:

1. Young Nixon looks like Dick Whitman:

Not really, but whatever.

2. David Hyde Pierce as a staffer:

And this biblical quote:

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