NIXON (1995)
Sound Bites

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In Nixon, postwar America is not merely a morass of illusion and clandestinity, but a grisly phantasmagoria beyond understanding.  (Christopher Sharett, Review 1).

The film's sense of the pervasive malevolence saturating the American Century at times serves it better than Stone's notion of clandestine America, not because his basic assertions are off base, but because he enunciates them so vaguely.  Stone seems constantly torn between documenting the visceral truth of an unseen side of state power, and merely hinting at such within the general matrix of foreboding, doleful tableaux.  (Christopher Sharett, Review 4)

Mark Carnes: Do you care that historians have criticized your work? And has their criticism influenced the way you go about making your films?
Oliver Stone: I think many historians come at filmmakers with an attitude and with hostility. It's as though history is their territory, and we don't belong. We just pervert the paradigm with emotion, sentimentality, and so on . . . . I think there's a sort of pomposity, a solemnity, that historians carry about with them. They feel they are in possession of the facts and the truth as though they were the chief priests in ancient Egypt caring for the sacred innards.  You know, the prophecies belong to them.  But from what I know about history -- not only from my personal experience of it in France and Russia and America, in Vietnam and Asia, but also from reading -- I know that many of these subjects are ambivalent  . . . . I think that's the only answer to people who say that movies brainwash young minds.  Movies are just the first draft.  They raise questions and inspire students to find out more.  (Carnes 1)

Nixon fascinates me.  He was a reviled man, but part of me has always been for the underdog, and I went against the grain, not because I loved him, but because I don't like the idea of categorizing and simplifying people. A lot of people said I was more than fair to Nixon.  (Stone, qtd. in Crowdus 3)

In any event, we will continue to have these debates about history in films -- and that's good.  Because debating over cinematic representations of history is far better than having our minds numbed watching The Terminator or Money Train or all the other mindless movies which have come out of Hollywood.  Not that film critics are any help in this area.  I find that most movie critics are shallow and conservative and all too willing to attack as pretentious or presumptuous or self-absorbed those of us who are trying to inject some intelligence into mainstream Hollywood films.  And what do we get as a result?  Certainly not movies that will inspire our kids to ask these kinds of questions. . . . In many ways, we've become prisoners of conformity, the thing I feared most as a child.  School was like that, the army was like that -- everything I saw in my life in the 1950s and 1960s emphasized conformity.  I was a conformist then and in many ways still am.  I am scared of breaking taboos and going against the rules; but when the rules are wrong and you know it through your life experience and in your gut, then you have to be willing to break the rules and damn the consequences.  And that's the only way you can live with yourself.  (Stone, A Filmmaker's Credo 2)

The most radical element of Stone's movie rests on the fundamental assumption that Richard Nixon, despite his failure to win the hearts of the American people, came to personify them just the same.  (Bruning 1)

To what degree should we excuse a filmmaker's efforts to incorporate symbolism that communicates his personal vision?  Should we tolerate some of these liberties?  Should we view the inventions as appropriate flourishes in a medium that gives individual artists considerable freedom to dramatize their own viewpoints?  Should we consider Stone's attention to conspiracies a legitimate form of artistic expression?  (Toplin 15)

Perhaps we are too wedded to the expectations of print-oriented history when we blast Stone (and other filmmakers) for incorporating personal theories in their movies.  We scan the treatment of evidence, expecting an accurate and authentic representation of the facts at every turn -- just as we would expect from a work of nonfiction that deals with the past.  But we are talking here about history delivered through the popular cinema -- an important distinction. Cinematic history is often fictional, poetic, representative.  Its stories communicate messages through the popular cinema -- an important distinction.  Cinematic history is often fictional, poetic, representative.  Its stories communicate messages through metaphor and allegory.  Hollywood cinema informs not by rendering events with factual exactitude but by creating compelling dramatic images that engage our senses, excite our emotions, and stimulate our thinking.  Stone's attention to conspiracy, then, may serve as a vague, broad, and symbolic statement that communicates distrust of government.  His suggestions about conspiracies warn us that appaling political behavior often occurs behind the scenes.  (Toplin 17)

If anything, I see myself as somewhat if a passionate blunderer who puts his foot in the proverbial dog shit now and then because the contemporary subjects I've dealt with are complicated and the central facts generally unagreed upon.  But until someone else comes along and is willing to have his reputation ripped apart by those who have inherited the vulture's nature, I fear these shadows will continue to circle me.  And even if an "Oliver Stone type" were not around, I think these modern creatures of an old venom, disguised as protectors of our history, would find one.  (Stone, qtd. in Toplin 43)

But ultimately it is you, the student of history, who should read for yourself and discover what is true.  Never base your views on one movie, one historian, one dramatist, one ideology, or one perception, no matter how seductive or convincing the messenger, Life is far too ambiguous.  Allow your natural sense of judgement, generosity, and empathy to prevail.  (Stone, qtd. in Toplin 46)

Does it matter?  William Shakespeare took liberties with the histories he dramatized, and I do not suppose that we are worse off because his vision of Henry IV does not correspond with the facts of English history.  But the Bard was not depicting contemporaries, and he did not have an agenda for social, economic, and political change in his country.  Stone thinks that the United States is rotten because of the sinister forces that rule.  He used both Kennedy and Nixon to prove it.  He wants to change the country and points to the Kennedy assassination and the Nixon presidency as proof of the need for radical political action.  In that sense, it matters greatly that he has distorted the past.  (Stephen Ambrose, qtd. in Toplin 207)

Few contemporary filmmakers are so intensely involved with history as Oliver Stone.  Few reshape -- or, as he would say, deconstruct -- history with such technical virtuosity.  He is endlessly resourceful in his effort to coerce assent by quasi-realistic situations of the past.  A magician of montage, he drives his movies ahead at a slam-bang pace.  A Stone film bombards with images, sounds, cuts, and flashes, like a music video.  It artfully mimics documentaries with jerky, gritty, black-and-white, cinema verite sequences as if filmed by a handheld camera.  No one can tell where fact ends and fiction begins.  (Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., qtd. in Toplin 213)

Virtual history is not enough.  (Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., qtd. in Toplin 213)

Although Nixon was a statesman for peace, trained in the footsteps of Winston Churchill and Charles de Gaulle, both of whom he much admired, by the end his life he had failed to reach his objective because of the flaws in his character.  This is ultimately what the movie is about.  I've grown to think that if Kennedy was prologue, then Nixon was epilogue, and that the framing device -- of using  these two powerful young men to understand our country in those turbulent years -- has probably given me as much satisfaction in my work as anything in my lifetime.  (Oliver Stone, qtd. in Toplin 255)

Stone has built a mausoleum of lies over the graves of Richard and Pat Nixon.  (Taylor 22)

One beings to understand how thoroughly Nixon's reputation was destroyed during Watergate after reading the review in the esteemed Daily Variety, which deemed the film "uncharacteristically uncontroversial."  One supposes the reviewer, and the others who wrote in the same vein, really do think that Nixon was an incompetent, venal, pill-popping, asexual, megalomaniacal drunk who bombed Cambodia because Mary Steenburgen was cold to him and plotted the assasination of Fidel Castro -- thus helping bring about the death of John F. Kennedy and the destruction of his own administration.  I guess a controversial scene would have involved barnyard animals.  (Taylor 23) 

In 1987 Stone remarked that, during the anti-war movement, he had advised colleagues, "If you want to protest, let's get a sniper scope and do Nixon."  Here was his chance.  (Taylor 26)

The few sympathetic scenes were inserted by a cynical propagandist who knows you can magnify a character's fundamental evil by granting him a glimmer or two of humanity and even majesty.  (Taylor 26)

How to explain any praise whatsoever in respectable circles for this ferocious assault on a statesman who -- in spite of his imperfections, and in the opinoin of many independent observers as well as his friends -- left a legacy of progressive Republicanism at home and enlightened national interest in foreign policy?  It's because Stone is channeling the angst of the most sanctimonious horde ever to have established hegemony over mainstream debate in this country.  A whole generation of privileged youngsters concluded that the United States was acting not imprudently or unwisely but immorally in Indochina.  It remains the unifying myth of a whole generation of commentators, reviewers, college professors, editors, television producers, corporate executives -- just about everybody who smoked dope to the first Jefferson Airplane record.  (Taylor 26)

Anybody in politics must have great competitive instinct.  He must want to win.  He must not like to lose, but above everything else, he must have the ability to come back, to keep fighting more and more strong when it seems that the odds are the greatest.  That’s the world of sports, that’s the world of politics.  I guess you could say that’s life itself.  (Nixon, Millhouse: A White Comedy)

I do suggest that because the war begat the scandal – because Watergate grew out of America’s argument with itself about Vietnam – history should weigh the two subjects side by side. . . . I also suggest that Richard Nixon’s standing in history is held hostage to the simmering tension of these same unresolved questions.  (Taylor, Letters from Yorba Linda, March 31, 2004) The media…can’t help writing their stories, they can’t help writing their stories without some sense of how things ought to be.  One of the problems we had after Watergate, when President Nixon resigned and there were all these clear violations of the law, is that…the Press brought that on, they started it, and they hammered it.  I think it gave them a sense of their own power, and a sense of responsibility.  But after that a lot of people in public life felt that the media thought they had to get somebody at every election cycle which was bad.  Then after 9/11, we went probably too far in the other direction where nobody criticized anybody for anything and a lot of things people looked the other way.  (President William Clinton, Daily Show with Jon Stewart, August 1, 2004)

Yet there was more than one Richard Nixon: if the Californian campaigned as a conservative, he governed as a liberal.  He gave two of the most prominent jobs in his administration to Harvard professors with close ties to Rockefeller Republicans and Kennedy Democrats – Henry Kissinger and Daniel Patrick Moynihan – and he boasted that his cabinet was less conservative than Eisenhower’s.  Nixon shared Ike’s Europe – first internationalism and his belief that the job of Republicans was to manage the New Deal better than the Democrats, but he took a more liberal stance on social issues.  Nixon was far more concerned with black rights than Eisenhower, who seemed to assume that blacks should be content with second-class citizenship.  Nixon was the first president to embrace affirmative action, mandating its extension to women as blacks.  Both federal spending and federal regulation grew faster under Nixon than they had under Johnson.  Social spending overtook defense spending for the first time…The Clean Air Act of 1970 was the most ambitious environmental measure yet produced.  A year later, the president called for the passage of a comprehensive national health-insurance plan.  For a while he became excited about providing all Americans with a minimum annual income.  (Mickelthwait and Wooldridge, 70)

Nixon brought out the worst in the conservative movement: its paranoia and self-pity, its obsession with conspiracies, its hatred of the establishment for no better reason than that it was the establishment.  He saddled the Right with a reputation for sleaziness and skullduggery that took years to live down.  And all for what?  Nixon was not only guilty breaking the law, he was, as far as policy was concerned, very much on the liberal that than the conservative side.  (Mickelthwait and Wooldridge, 70-71)

The great majority of Americans like our system of government. Much as we like it, however, we would not impose it on anyone else.  We believe that people everywhere should have a right to choose the form of government they want.  (Nixon, The Challenges We Face, 232)

[Nixon] may have been right in [his] political judgment.  But it disturbed me deeply, as it does now, to realize that we were continuing to slaughter the Vietnamese people and our own soldiers not because it was a military necessity but purely for domestic political reasons.  Nothing in the movie lends comfort to any other conclusion. . . . As the screen Nixon says to his wife when she complains about his lifetime obsession with politics, “Everything is politics.  You’re politics.  I’m politics.”  Oliver Stone is right in seeing Nixon’s four-year prolongation of the Vietnam War as “politics.”  It certainly bore no relationship to the realities facing us in Southeast Asia.  (George S. McGovern, qtd. in Toplin 209)  

Oliver Stone is an earnest, appealing man.  He is a patriot.  He fought bravely for his country in the horror of Vietnam.  He has surely earned the right to brood and agonize over the reasons he and so many others were sent to kill and die in a pointless war.  (Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., qtd. in Toplin 213)

Your can see why I believe so deeply in the American dream….The American dream has come true [for me].  (Nixon, acceptance speech for presidential nomination, August 9, 1968)

 

Copyright (c) 2004 Mehnaz A. Choudhury, Presidential Scholar at Lehigh University.

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