Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Nixon: A Ghost Story

[For the Politics & Movies Blog-a-thon.]

Oliver Stone’s Nixon has all the earmarks (allusion intended) of a political epic. Of course it does. It’s the story of the President of the United States, told primarily out of the White House and drawing upon landmark moments in American history. As a time capsule it works marvelously, providing younger viewers with a sense of both the Nixon presidency and the era before it that shaped Richard Milhous Nixon in his rise to power.

Yet for all its political provocation – perhaps the most notorious example of which is the suggestion that Nixon mingled with the Dallas financiers of the John F Kennedy assassination – Nixon is no more a political yarn than is William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. First and foremost, Nixon is personal tragedy, something Roger Ebert identified in his original review when he wrote: “here, again, is a ruler destroyed by his fatal flaws.”

Like any key figure in a Shakespearean tragedy, Stone’s Nixon (portrayed by Anthony Hopkins) reaches for things beyond his grasp and suffers because of it. Even more Shakespearean: Nixon is haunted by ghosts. Over the course of a 190-minute film that’s as rough around the edges as it is bold, Nixon is haunted by four spirits – psychological specters so significant that even the president’s closest confidante, wife Pat, can detect them.

A writer first and a director second, Stone (working here with cinematographer Robert Richardson) is rarely celebrated for his visual compositions, and yet Nixon’s haunted moments make for some of the film’s most compelling scenes. Though in most cases the ghostly visitations are metaphorical imaginings, one could easily argue that these scenes mark the film at its most accurate.

For historical truth, we have encyclopedias. For emotional truth, we have art. Upon examining its moments of haunting, Nixon turns out to be less a political film than a ghost story.

The Father
The film’s first haunting is its most vague visitation and yet perhaps also the most psychologically significant. Sharing a private moment with his wife, Pat, Nixon expresses his disappointment over falling to John F Kennedy in the 1960 presidential race. Nixon hates to lose on principle, and the salt in his wound is the feeling that Kennedy played dirty to win. Moments earlier, an adviser discourages Nixon from challenging the tight election results saying that Kennedy “stole it fair and square.” That’s politics.

Lying in Pat’s arms, Nixon provides the first glimpse at what drives him: not ego, not a thirst for power, not a desire for glory, but instead the memories of a father who scratched and clawed all his life and never got anywhere. (“When you quit struggling, they’ve beaten you,” his father says in one of many flashbacks.) Nixon portrays its subject as both proud of his father’s tenacity and ashamed of what little there was to show for it.

Looking exhausted, Nixon says to his wife: “Maybe I should get out of the game. What do you think, Buddy? Go back to being a lawyer. End up with something solid, some money at the end of the line.”

In response, Joan Allen’s Pat fights back tears. But in what is Allen’s finest moment, Pat can’t restrain a slight hopeful nod – a desperate prayer that her husband’s tragic fate can be altered. The gesture suggests that Pat sees the ghost of Nixon’s father more clearly than he does. She knows that her husband has fated himself to work just as hard for rewards just as slight. Nixon can never quit, because his father never did.

Nixon continues: “You know, I keep thinking of my old man tonight. He was a failure, too. You know how much money he had in the bank when he died? Nothing. He was so damned honest. But I miss him. I miss him a hell of a lot.”

This scene, just over 20 minutes into the film, announces Stone’s intent to try and understand the broken soul that drove the controversial figure. It’s here that Nixon begins to see honesty as an obstacle and identifies surrender as a crime. He can only live up to his father’s work ethic by failing (only to try again), and yet he can only live up to his father’s memory by succeeding. Thus, Nixon is doomed.

The Mother
If Nixon’s work ethic came from his father, Stone’s film suggests that the president’s sense of right and wrong was instilled by his religious mother. Early childhood memories show Hannah Nixon (Mary Steenburgen), a devout Quaker, interrogating her son about a cigarette that was procured surreptitiously behind the family store. Once her son confesses to the crime, Hannah agrees to make his sin their little secret. But despite escaping a painful trip to the woodshed with his father, Nixon is still visibly shaken. He may have avoided punishment, but he has suffered the sting of his seemingly omniscient mother’s disappointment.

Thus it’s only appropriate that late in Stone’s film, when we find the president listening to the famous Oval Office audio recordings that implicate him in the Watergate burglaries, Nixon is haunted by his mother. Of the four ghostly visitations in Stone’s film, this is the most overt. As a drunken Pat enters the room, chastising her husband for his lack of moral fortitude (“I know how ugly you can be. You’re capable of anything.”), an equally intoxicated Nixon spots a hallucinatory vision of his mother sitting a chair below the gaze of a judgmental Abraham Lincoln portrait.

Initially, Hannah Nixon’s apparition doesn’t speak. Her disapproval is voiced by Pat, who compares the tapes to illicit “love letters” and hypothesizes that since Nixon didn’t go the distance with his crime by destroying the tapes altogether, he must secretly want his sins to be exposed. Nixon objects: “They were for me. They’re mine.” Pat, channeling the disappointment of Nixon’s mother, responds: “They’re not yours. They are you.”

It’s here that Nixon’s tragedy reaches its apex: the audio recordings that an insecure president thought necessary to secure his historical glory will instead serve as a wrecking ball to his accomplishments. Meanwhile, Stone’s film establishes that though the figure of Tricky Dick seemed to lack a conscience, Nixon the man indeed suffered the knowledge of his transgressions. It was his private burden.

The Holy Spirit
Predictably, given that Stone was coming off of JFK and Natural Born Killers, Nixon was immediately met with controversy in regard to the film’s factuality (or lack thereof) and potential agenda. More than a decade later, the hoopla of 1995 seems both justified and overblown. For evidence of the latter, consider that Nixon’s most surreal scene is indeed based on real life: a predawn visit to the Lincoln Memorial by Nixon and his personal assistant Manolo Sanchez in May of 1970.

According to various historical accounts, Nixon made the unplanned trip in the aftermath of the Kent State shootings because he felt the Lincoln Memorial was a spiritual place, especially at night. But Stone makes the visit symbolic of a different kind of spiritualism: Lincoln was one of Nixon’s ghosts. Much like the 43rd president, the 37th president felt that as commander in chief during unpopular and costly wars he shared a common bond with the 16th president. The difference between Nixon and George W Bush, however, is that Nixon was painfully aware that he lacked the reverence enjoyed by Lincoln.

In the film, as Nixon climbs the steps of the Lincoln Memorial the view of the Washington Memorial behind him is replaced by war footage: bombs falling on Cambodia. It’s as if current events force Nixon to seek guidance from Lincoln, who sits magnificently and yet illusively as if he were the Wizard of Oz.

Dwarfed by Lincoln’s statue, Nixon is revealed to be too small, too weak to guide America through its storm. As a protesting student puts it soon after, Nixon is “powerless.” The president objects with a punctuated, “No!” that reverberates off the marble. But it’s a denial Nixon doesn’t fully believe. Inside, Nixon is haunted by the fear that next to the great presidents he doesn’t measure up.

The Martyr
Lincoln wasn’t the only former president to haunt Nixon. As portrayed in Stone’s film, Nixon saw the ghost of John F Kennedy everywhere he looked. Thus there are many moments when Kennedy’s spirit seems to loom over the president, but only one of them is filmed as a ghostly visitation.

It’s a scene set up brilliantly by another midway through the film when Nixon shares a private moment with his aide, Sanchez, in the White House kitchen. As a discussion of Cuba turns to comments on Kennedy, Nixon asks: “You didn’t think he was a hero, did you?”

“He was a politician,” Sanchez replies diplomatically. “You cry when he died?” Nixon inquires, seeming to know the answer. “Yes,” Sanchez admits sheepishly. “Why?” the president demands. “I don’t know,” Sanchez says. “He made me see the stars.”

As portrayed by Stone, Nixon’s inferiority complex in relation to Kennedy is as intense as it is hypocritical. On the one hand Nixon sees Kennedy in the same heavenly glow as the average American. JFK is the guy who had the “right clothes,” went to the “right school” and came from the “right family,” while Nixon didn’t. But on the other hand, Nixon is genuinely dumbfounded that he’ll never be so adored, that America will see him as nothing more than a crusty scab – an ugly necessity.

On that note, at the conclusion of the film, Nixon puts into words the sentiment that has already become clear. Looking up at Kennedy’s portrait hanging in the White House, he offers: “When they look at you, they see what they want to be. When they look at me, they see what they are.” Those two lines of dialogue encapsulate perfectly Nixon’s feelings of inadequacy and his penchant for self-loathing. They also make for what must be the film’s most iconic moment. And yet what’s all too easily overlooked is how Stone gets us to those lines.

Moments earlier, Nixon is seen bidding farewell to Henry Kissinger (Paul Sorvino) and Alexander Haig (Powers Boothe). He has signed his resignation. His presidency is over. The nightmare, one would guess, has ended. But as soon as Kissinger and Haig depart, the camera tracks from behind Nixon’s shoulder to a frontal view. In the process, Kennedy’s portrait is revealed in the background behind Nixon as if it were Michael Myers or Jason Voorhees waiting to strike. Hopkins’ Nixon reacts to it in kind, jolting with recognition as if he feels Kennedy’s breath on the back of his neck before he turns to face him with his own eyes.

Nixon’s presidency might be over, but for the man the nightmare never ends. These ghosts will always be with him.


Unknown said...

Wow, this is a great reading of NIXON. I hadn't really thought of the film in that way but you make some excellent observations.

What I find so fascinating about the film is Stone's theory that the political system is akin to a wild beast and that the best that a president can do is try to keep it under control but Nixon's fatal flaw was that he thought that he could tame it.

Fox said...

For historical truth, we have encyclopedias. For emotional truth, we have art.

Love that line.

Nixon is one of the few Stone films I haven't seen. ONE, b/c of it's length (setting aside time for it, etc.) and TWO b/c I kinda grew up hating Stone. But as an adult I have different feelings about the mans work.

I hope this makes sense, but as a newer, younger generation revisits his work, as you and J.D. have done - and I'm assuming y'alls ages, so sorry if I'm wrong :) -, I feel like his work has had time to breathe and age well.

Joshua said...

I've always avoided Stone's presidential films, although I did recently check out his latest, but your article actually makes me want to watch this, despite the fact that I really didn't like W. I don't know whether to thank you or admonish you, I guess I'll figure that out when I watch it.

Jason Bellamy said...

Fox & Joshua: Give "Nixon" a chance. Yes, it's long. And it has some fat on it. And watching it now you'll scratch your head wondering why James Woods ever got parts in movies. But it's captivating.

My respect for "Nixon" only increases in light of "W." I don't object to the latter because it offers a sympathetic view of Bush (I actually identify with that view). I object to it because it's inexplicably bland.

"Nixon" is sloppy. It overreaches. But bland it ain't.