Presentation on theme: "Nixon (1995) Artemus Ward Dept. of Political Science Northern Illinois University."— Presentation transcript:
Nixon (1995) Artemus Ward Dept. of Political Science Northern Illinois University
Hunter S. Thompson on Nixon "Some of my best friends have hated Nixon all their lives. My mother hates Nixon, my son hates Nixon, I hate Nixon, and this hatred has brought us together.” “Nixon laughed when I told him this. ‘Don't worry,’ he said, ‘I, too, am a family man, and we feel the same way about you.’ –– Dr. Hunter S. Thompson
Citizen Nixon Stone draws on Orson Wells’ Citizen Kane throughout the film. Nixon is a convincing blend of Shakespearean tragedy and Citizen Kane with Stone painting the thirty-seventh President of the United States as a uniquely American tragic hero. Like Kane, Nixon is at times pathetic, at times sympathetic, and at times even admirable. Nixon opens with the president taking a last breath of sorts (he's about to resign), clutching a glass of scotch, and brooding drunkenly while a reel-to-reel deck unspools his fate. The Watergate tapes are Nixon's Rosebud: the primary symbol of the man's life, which the film will go on to explicate in flashback. Another allusion to Kane is Stone’s crane shot that slides through a gap in the White House gate just as the music swells and a flicker of lightning fills the night sky. The cold dinner scene between Dick and Pat is a replay from Kane. Nixon’s erratic political climb is retold mostly in a "March of Time" newsreel that evokes Kane.
Anthony Hopkins as Nixon This is the Anthony Hopkins show, through and through. It was controversial casting to put the British Hopkins in the proto-American role of Richard M. Nixon, and reviews at the time were mixed. He pulls it off, but it stands as one of Hopkins' most difficult performances. Part doppelganger, part caricature, he's at once Nixon and some kind of freaky space alien. Whatever it is, watching him is a real treat. Stone justified his casting of Hopkins: “For over 30 years, he’s demonstrated his chameleonlike talents over and over again in movies, theater, and television… Some of Tony’s previous roles have shown a melancholy, lonely quality that was perfect for Nixon.”
Joan Allen as Pat Nixon Allen’s portrayal of Pat Nixon was critically acclaimed. Stone shows her husband’s worshipful but virtually asexual dependency on this multifaceted, admirable woman as both problematic and troubling. Is Pat a substitute for Nixon’s Quaker mother?
The Beast: Forces of Nature The “Beast” is a metaphor that appears in many of Oliver Stone’s films. It is shorthand for Darwinian natural forces that indiscriminately exert power over human beings. In Nixon, the scene in which President Nixon talks with Vietnam War protesters at the Lincoln Memorial alludes to the metaphor. A young woman asks why Nixon does not stop the war, then, beginning to comprehend, she says, “You can’t stop it can you? Even if you wanted to. Because it’s not you. It’s the system. And the system won’t let you stop it…. Then what’s the point? What’s the point of being president? You’re powerless!” Nixon responds, “No! No, I’m not powerless. Because I understand the system, I believe I can, uh… I can control it, maybe not control it totally… but tame it enough to make it do some good.” The woman replies, “Sounds like you’re talking about a wild animal.” Nixon says, “Maybe I am” and at the end of the scene he says to his chief of staff H.R. Haldeman, “She understood something it’s taken me twenty-five fucking years in politics to understand. The CIA, the Mafia, the Wall Street bastards…‘The Beast.’ A nineteen-year-old kid. She understands the nature of ‘The Beast.’ She called it a wild animal.” Stone has said that Richard Nixon’s “potential was limitless, but ultimately was limited by powers that even he couldn’t control. To some degree, Nixon is about the illusion of power.” The Beast symbolizes those powers that limited Nixon’s potential, that frustrated his plans. Stone has called the Beast “a metaphor” for “a force (or forces) greater than the presidency.”
The Beast: Within and Without Nixon The Beast has a “master agenda” of its own, of which Nixon and others are only vaguely aware. Christopher Wilkinson, Stone’s co-writer on the film, explains what the writers meant by the Beast: “In order for Nixon to have become President in 1968, Jack Kennedy had to die, Lyndon Johnson had to be forced into retirement, Dr. King had to die, Bobby Kennedy had to die, Hubert Humphrey had to be eviscerated in Chicago. It almost seemed that Nixon was being helped, helped by something dark, something sinister, something frightening, some thing. And we called it the Beast.” In part, the Beast is within Stone’s Nixon, the perverse side of him, which comes from nature. Wilkinson explains that the Beast “became a metaphor for the dark side of Nixon himself. The monster within that relentlessly drove him. To claw his way to the top. To lie. To cover up.” The Beast also stands for powerful forces outside Nixon. Wilkinson writes: “The Beast became a metaphor for the darkest organic forces in American Cold War politics: the anti- Communist crusade, secret intelligence, organized crime, big business. People and entities with apparently divergent agendas. But at certain moments in history, their interests converged. And people died.” The use of the word “organic” to describe these forces of Cold War politics, which the Beast represents, associates the Beast with nature. For Stone, war, organized crime, and capitalism are tied to the Darwinian struggle in nature, are remnants of the ancient reptilian, killer brain that still exist in human culture. That explains how the CIA, the Mafia, and American big business in Nixon can all be manifestations of the Beast. All can be understood as remnants of the killer brain.
The Beast: Blood Brothers In the film, Nixon senses that something is helping him. He tells Haldeman that after Bobby Kennedy’s death, “I knew I’d be president. Death paved the way, didn’t it? Vietnam. The Kennedys. It cleared a path through the wilderness for me. Over the bodies… Four bodies.” The four bodies are Nixon’s four brothers—two political brothers and two blood brothers. The murders of Jack and Bobby Kennedy allowed Nixon to succeed to the presidency without having to defeat them politically. Arthur and Harold Nixon died of tuberculosis and made it possible for his parents to afford to send Nixon to law school. Nixon asks, “Who’s helping us? Is it God? Or is it… Death?” We know from Wilkinson that it is the Beast that is helping Nixon, and this scene contains a visual commentary on the Beast. As Nixon asks who is helping him, the film cuts to an image of tuberculosis bacilli under a microscope, then, in a flashback, to a desert landscape—the sanitarium where Harold is dying of tuberculosis. The effect is to identify the Beast with nature and the Beast’s agenda with nature’s agenda. After Harold’s death, in words that call to mind survival of the fittest in nature, Nixon’s mother urges her son to go to law school. Nixon feels guilty about Harold. “Did he have to die for me to get it?” Nixon asks. His mother replies, “It’s meant to make us stronger. Thou art stronger than Harold…stronger than Arthur. God has chosen thee to survive.” In the scene with the protesters at the Lincoln Memorial, the dialogue associated the Beast with nature, an association reinforced by visuals in the scene. As the young woman speaks the words “they system,” a shot of Nixon’s dead brothers appears, making the point that the things we are told in this scene “the system” comprises—the CIA, the Mafia, big business—are Darwinian forces rooted in nature just as much as the tuberculosis that killed Nixon’s brothers.
The Beast: Political Brothers Wilkinson: “We conjured up a most chilling truth about the Beast. Not that it exists—but that it does not know it exists. We imagined the Beast as a headless monster lurching through postwar American history, instinctively seeking figureheads to wear its public face, creating them when need be, destroying them when they no longer serve its purposes.” That idea appears in the film’s treatment of President Kennedy’s assassination. In the film, Nixon believes a CIA plot to murder Fidel Castro somehow backfired. “Whoever killed Kennedy came from this…this thing we created. This Beast,” Nixon says. “It was like…it had a life of its own. Like…a kind of ‘beast’ that doesn’t even know it exists. It just eats people when it doesn’t need ‘em anymore.” Hence, we can deduce that JFK’s murder was the result of his Administration’s failure to remove Castro during the Bay of Pigs, his war on organized crime, and even his moves toward civil rights and possible reluctance to escalate the Vietnam War. Similarly, RFK’s murder was precipitated by his seemingly revolutionary stances on civil rights, economic equality, and ending the war in Vietnam. And because of the unprecedented moral authority he commanded (which was at least partly due to the death of his brother), the Beast could not allow Bobby to gain power. Hence the Beast killed both Nixon’s brothers and the Kennedys and paved the way for Nixon’s rise to the presidency.
The Beast: Nixon and the CIA The film asserts that as Vice President under Dwight D. Eisenhower, Nixon played a role in Government efforts to assassinate Fidel Castro in Cuba. Perhaps the most controversial element of the film is its suggestion that Nixon took part in planning a Castro assassination attempt that unwittingly fed forces that later brought about the assassination of President Kennedy.
The Beast: Face-to-Face I Stone has said that Nixon was removed from office because he “ran up against ‘the Beast.’” Stone’s Nixon is one of those figure-heads the Beast has sought out to wear its public face. “You’re just a mouthpiece for an agenda that’s hidden from us,” a member of the audience at a 1968 campaign event says to Nixon in the film. But Stone’s Nixon does not want merely to serve the Beast, he wants to tame it, to set forth his own agenda, and in trying to do so, he antagonizes powerful forces, something made clear in the film by two face-to-face meetings Nixon has with manifestations of the Beast. 1.Nixon’s meeting with CIA Director Helms, a scene that appears in the director’s cut of the film. Not only does the screenplay state that the Beast is in the room during the scene, but animal imagery also signals the presence of the Beast and again associates the Beast with nature. According to the screenplay, Helms greets Nixon “with a reptilian smile.” Prominently displayed in the scene is a woodcarving of a bird of prey. Helms recites lines from Yeats’s “The Second Coming.” As he says the words “What rough beast, its hour come round at last/Slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?” he moves in front of the woodcarving so that only the bird’s wings can be seen, appearing to come from Helms’s back, a visual the identifies him as a manifestation of the Beast. Helms expresses displeasure that Nixon had done nothing to remove Castro and that the president has planned a diplomatic opening to China. The camera looks down on Nixon, making him look small, weak, and vulnerable compared to Helms, thereby suggesting that the Beast is a force more powerful than the presidency. The screenplay makes clear that Nixon feels threatened: “A disturbing image suddenly appears in Nixon’s mind—KENNEDY with his head blown off in Dallas. Followed by an IMAGE of his own death. In a coffin.”
The Beast: Face-to-Face II 2. The second meeting takes place at the Texas ranch of Jack Jones where Nixon meets with a group made up of wealthy businessmen and anti-Castro Cubans. Again, animal imagery makes clear that the Beast is present. Upon meeting the group, Nixon has a subconscious image of “something slimy, reptilian.” In a scene cut from the film but appearing in the screenplay, Nixon and Jones watch a “red-eyed, snorting” Brahma bull that “thrashes viciously against the reinforced walls of its pen.” Jones refers to the bull as a “beast” and says, “This here’s a bad bull. You piss him off, he’ll kill everything in his path.” The men at Jones’s ranch supported Nixon in the 1968 election but have grown angry with that president. Jones articulates what upsets the group, beginning with Nixon’s handling of Vietnam: “It looks like to me we’re gonna lose a war for the first Goddamn time and, Dick, Goddamnit, you’re gong along with it, buying into this Kissinger bullshit—‘détente’ with the Communists. ‘Détente’—it sounds like two fags dancing…. I mean I got federal price controls on my oil. The ragheads are beating the shit out of me. And I get your EPA environment agency with its thumb so far up my ass it’s scratching my ear…. And now I have a federal judge ordering me to bus my kids halfway ‘cross town to go to school with some nigger kids. I think, Mr. President, you’re forgetting who put you where you are.” Nixon replies, “The American people put me where I am,” to which Jones responds, smirking, “Really? Well, that can e changed.” Nixon has tried to tame the Beast, but his hopes are frustrated by the Darwinian forces the Beast represents. Nixon becomes their victim. Christopher Wilkinson maintains, “Nixon violated the cardinal rule of American politics: Don’t piss off The Beast. Nixon’s Administration was dismantled when he was well on his way to arguably becoming the most effective centrist President in American history: SALT I, China, the schools, the EPA.”
Nixon’s Tragic Nightmare For Stone, Nixon was a tragic figure cursed with unique access to ugly truths, an ill-suited voyager into the deep black heart of mid-century America. The whole film has a strange dream-like quality to it, in which sound and picture converge and diverge with Nixon’s minor key emotional fugue of sentimentality, regret, resentment and drive. As the great existential psychiatrist Irvin Yalom observed, a nightmare is a failed dream. The film is less a movie than the representation of one man’s swamp of subjectivity as he blunders through the engine room of the American Dream.
Personal Inadequacy Stone concludes that, at the most basic psychological level, Nixon simply and desperately wanted approval. As Kissinger puts it, "Can you imagine what this man might have been had he ever been loved? It's a tragedy because he had greatness in his grasp, but he had the defects of his qualities." In another scene, with Watergate about to explode, Ehrlichman expresses considerably more frustration about the fallout from Nixon's sense of inadequacy: "This is about Richard Nixon. I mean, you got people dying because he didn't make the Varsity football team. You got the Constitution hanging by a thread because he went to Whittier, not to Yale.“ The summit with Chairman Mao serves as this film's equivalent of the Stone "vision quest," with Mao telling Nixon, "We are the new emperors. We are both from poor families, and others pay to feed the hunger in us...History is a symptom of our disease." The telltale Stone ghost figure is Nixon's stern Quaker mother; the son constantly reflects on his failure to live up to the mother's ideals ("Strength in this life, happiness in the next"). Ultimately, Nixon is never able to overcome his deep-sense of inadequacy as the premature deaths (and therefore martyrdom) of his blood and political brothers result in “survivor guilt” and rob him of the chance to measure up to them, let alone best them.
Presidential Character Hollywood films about the presidency seem to be obsessed with the issue of character. Why? Because Americans do not merely change administrations every four years—or have the opportunity to do so; citizens of the United States have the option to change sovereigns with every presidential election. Unlike the British, Americans do not have a monarchy to lend symbolic continuity to the national identity. The transitions, as a result, impose more of a burden on the officeholders. Voters do not merely expect the president to oversee the actions of the executive departments, but— since the time of George Washington and Parson Weems’s mythical cherry tree—they expect a president to be a symbol of national character. The office of the president and the person of the president as leader/hero/savior take their roots from American cultural myths. Many Americans invest so much mythological currency in the presidency that they imagine the office and the occupant to possess heroic qualities far beyond those of imaginary mortals. Nixon is a case study in how presidential character is at the mercy of the Beast. Nixon can bee seen as a bleak picture of the American scene in which the force of personality and the virtues of character no longer matter. During the 1960s and after, counterculturalists like Oliver Stone savaged the symbolic office in their despair that no president could control the Beast of the military/industrial/political complex. In addition, their pop-Freudian notions about human nature disposed them to see the future as a spiritual wasteland where personal values no longer count. Have we reached a point in American politics where the American people are unconcerned about character? Have Americans learned from the 1960s counterculture that personal responsibility is an irrelevant issue in a world of violence, political conspiracy, corporate greed, and power elites? And therefore presidential character is irrelevant as presidents are used as pawns by the Beast…
The Nixon Family Responds Nixon died in April 1994 and two days before the release the film in 1995, Nixon’s family issued an angry statement calling portions of the movie "reprehensible" and saying it was maliciously designed to "defame and degrade President and Mrs. Nixon's memories in the mind of the American public." They said the movie was nothing less than a "character assassination" of the 37th President. In the statement, Nixon's daughters, Tricia Nixon Cox and Julie Nixon Eisenhower, and their husbands said that Stone had waited until Nixon and his wife, Patricia, were dead to make his film, "expressly to prevent their asserting their rights under the law.“ It added: "The published script also contains passages which state erroneously and maliciously that Richard Nixon was responsible for United States Government plans to assassinate Fidel Castro and which state erroneously and maliciously that he believed the apparatus he is alleged to have created for that purpose was ultimately turned against John F. Kennedy." The contention that Nixon "had any knowledge of, and indirect moral and operational responsibility in, the murder of the 35th President of the United States is so reprehensible that it should render wholly illegitimate any text of narrative in which it is contained," the statement said. In a statement responding to the criticism, Stone denied any malicious intent. "While I understand the distress that any effort to examine the life of Richard Nixon might create for his family, our purpose in making the film 'Nixon,' was neither malicious nor defamatory," he said. The aim of the film, he said, was to attempt "a fuller understanding of the life and career of Richard Nixon -- the good and the bad, the triumphs and the tragedies, and the legacy he left his nation and the world."
Funeral Scene and Revisionist History The film was released just 20 months after Nixon’s death and ends with footage from his funeral, with tributes paid by Bill Clinton and Republican Senator Bob Dole, who had been Gerald Ford’s running mate in Clinton and Dole would later confront each other in the 1996 presidential election. The funeral scene is meant to portray the Nixon revisionism engaged in by many in the post-Watergate years as Nixon himself attempted to resurrect himself as an author and elder-statesman. Hunter S. Thompson wrote of the funeral: “The funeral was a dreary affair, finely staged for TV and shrewdly dominated by ambitious politicians and revisionist historians. The Rev. Billy Graham, still agile and eloquent at the age of 136, was billed as the main speaker, but he was quickly upstaged by two 1996 GOP presidential candidates: Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas and Gov. Pete Wilson of California, who formally hosted the event and saw his poll numbers crippled when he got blown off the stage by Dole, who somehow seized the No. 3 slot on the roster and uttered such a shameless, self-serving eulogy that even he burst into tears at the end of it. Dole's stock went up like a rocket and cast him as the early GOP front- runner for '96. Wilson, speaking next, sounded like an Engelbert Humperdinck impersonator and probably won't even be re-elected as governor of California in November.” “The historians were strongly represented by the No. 2 speaker, Henry Kissinger, Nixon's secretary of state and himself a zealous revisionist with many axes to grind. He set the tone for the day with a maudlin and spectacularly self-serving portrait of Nixon as even more saintly than his mother and as a president of many godlike accomplishments--most of them put together in secret by Kissinger, who came to California as part of a huge publicity tour for his new book on diplomacy, genius, Stalin, H.P. Lovecraft and other great minds of our time, including himself and Richard Nixon. “Kissinger was only one of the many historians who suddenly came to see Nixon as more than the sum of his many squalid parts. He seemed to be saying that History will not have to absolve Nixon, because he has already done it himself in a massive act of will and crazed arrogance that already ranks him supreme, along with other Nietzschean supermen like Hitler, Jesus, Bismarck and the Emperor Hirohito. These revisionists have catapulted Nixon to the status of an American Caesar, claiming that when the definitive history of the 20th century is written, no other president will come close to Nixon in stature. "He will dwarf FDR and Truman," according to one scholar from Duke University.” “It was all gibberish, of course. Nixon was no more a Saint than he was a Great President. He was more like Sammy Glick than Winston Churchill. He was a cheap crook and a merciless war criminal who bombed more people to death in Laos and Cambodia than the U.S. Army lost in all of World War II, and he denied it to the day of his death. When students at Kent State University, in Ohio, protested the bombing, he connived to have them attacked and slain by troops from the National Guard.”
Flop or Masterpiece? History has not been much kinder to Nixon the movie than it was to Nixon the man. Grossing under $14 million domestically, the $50 million movie was an enormous box office flop (what 1995-era family wouldn't want to go catch Nixon on Christmas Day?). No doubt the complex Citizen Kane contours, the non-linear narrative, and the fact that audiences needed to have prior knowledge of Nixon’s life and career, all served to doom the film at the box office. Still, four Oscar nominations (it won none) must have softened the blow somewhat for auteur director Oliver Stone. Furthermore, critics generally agree that the film is a well-done, sympathetic portrayal of Nixon.
Conclusion The point of Stone’s films, and particularly Nixon, is not that a small cabal is secretly directing history in a highly ordered way behind the scenes, but that no human beings are in control. Instead, Darwinian forces are in the saddle and ride human beings for good or ill. In running up against the Beast, Stone’s Nixon had run up against nature, both outside himself and within himself. If Nixon is a tragedy, the film is not just a tragedy in the traditional Greek or Shakespearean sense; Nixon is also a tragedy in precisely the way that Camille Paglia characterizes the genre: “Tragedy is the most western literary genre. The western will, setting itself up against nature, dramatized its own inevitable fall.” In this sense, the political rise and fall of Richard Nixon is the perfect case study in how larger forces can shape political development and how presidential character is of little consequence and presidents as individuals are relatively powerless.
Post-Script: Why Nixon Matters “Nixon's spirit will be with us for the rest of our lives…. This is not a generational thing. You don't even have to know who Richard Nixon was to be a victim of his ugly, Nazi spirit. He has poisoned our water forever. Nixon will be remembered as a classic case of a smart man shitting in his own nest. But he also shit in our nests, and that was the crime that history will burn on his memory like a brand. By disgracing and degrading the Presidency of the United States, by fleeing the White House like a diseased cur, Richard Nixon broke the heart of the American Dream.” – Dr. Hunter S. Thompson
Sources Canavese, Peter, “Nixon,” Groucho Reviews, Coyne, Michael, Hollywood Goes to Washington: American Politics on Screen (London: Reaktion Books, 2008). Dugdale, Timothy, “I Have a Dream Sequence,” Solpix, Etkind, Charlene, Richard Nixon as Dick (1999) and the Comedic Treatment of the Presidency,” in Peter C. Rollins and John E. O’Connor, eds., Hollywood’s White House: The American Presidency in Film and History (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2003) Nelson, Rob, “Citizen Dick,” Minneapolis City Pages, December 20, 1995, Null, Christopher, “Nixon,” filmcritic.com, Rollins, Peter C., “Hollywood’s Presidents : The Primacy of Character,” in Peter C. Rollins and John E. O’Connor, eds., Hollywood’s White House: The American Presidency in Film and History (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2003) Thompson, Hunter S., “He Was a Crook,” Rolling Stone, June 16, Weinraub, Bernard, “Nixon Family Assails Stone Film as Distortion,” New York Times, December 19, Whaley, Donald, “Biological Business-as-Usual,” in Peter C. Rollins and John E. O’Connor, eds., Hollywood’s White House: The American Presidency in Film and History (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2003)