Fear and Self-Loathing

Oliver Stone Pt. 3: Nixon and the unmaking of a president
by Kevin B. Lee and Matt Zoller Seitz  posted October 16, 2008
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The opening scene of Oliver Stone's Nixon finds the Watergate burglars preparing for their mission while watching a training film about how to be a good salesman. Though seemingly random, it hints at what's to come: an epic biography about a man of substance who was uncomfortable in his own skin, enslaved by influences and impulses that his repressive conditioning wouldn't permit him to investigate. A sprawling amalgam of Death of a Salesman, Citizen Kane, Freudian psychoanalysis, and 50 years' worth of headlines and transcripts, Nixon feels less like a biography than an autobiography, colored by Nixon's paranoia and self-loathing.

It was assumed that Stone, a counterculture provocateur whose Vietnam service coincided with Nixon's rise to the presidency, would skewer the man as a panderer to red-state reactionaries, a man who pursued power for power's sake, and an enabler and exemplar of the military-industrial complex whose presence hovers over so much of Stone's filmography. Yet the movie is no hit job, as evidenced by the sequence that follows Nixon's strangely psychoanalytical China trip with a harshly editorializing account of the Christmas bombing of Hanoi that no early '70s broadcast news outlet would ever have allowed. This newscast, like all the newscasts in the movie—indeed, like the whole of Nixon—isn't supposed to be taken as a straight recreation of reality. This isn't the news. It's the naysaying chorus Nixon hears in his head.

The media that intrude upon the film's narrative are colored by Nixon's self-perception. When he reads a newspaper or watches TV, he, and we, aren't seeing what the world thinks of Nixon, but what Nixon thinks the world thinks of Nixon. In the sequence following Nixon's defeat in the 1962 California governor's race, we enter the room with Nixon, then feel his frustration as he gives what he wrongly assumes will be his last public speech. As he talks, Stone cuts to newspaper reporters writing down Nixon's emotionally naked statements, and newsreel cameras seeking to frame Nixon as unflatteringly as possible, even zeroing in on his signature upper-lip sweat.

Nixon's mind is a Freudian stew of incompatible ingredients. There are idealized flashbacks to his Quaker upbringing, showing how he idolized his older brother and mother, and feared his disciplinarian father. We sense that Nixon absorbed their prejudices, aspired to their clarity—and remembered their admonition to never give up, no matter what.

The "reality" of Nixon's life is often overlayed with, or interrupted by, still photographs, headlines, or footage from newsreel or TV cameras. Sometimes these elements simply reduce Nixon's accomplishments to historical footnotes, as if Nixon is thinking, "Nobody will remember how long I worked to do this, only that it happened." We're inside Nixon's head as he tries to make a case for himself, while trying and failing to suppress his fear that journalism—the first draft of history—has already diminished him through pop psychoanalysis, leftist posturing, and petty schoolyard cruelty.

The premature death of Nixon's older brother is conflated, in Nixon's imagination, with the killing of JFK, a man whose star quality seemed a reproach to Nixon's very existence. The film re-creates Nixon's 1960 presidential debate with John F. Kennedy, whose good looks, charisma, and TV makeup made Nixon look like a moist little troll. There's a moment where JFK uses information gleaned in a secret CIA briefing to attack the Eisenhower-Nixon administration's foreign policy, violating both national security and JFK's previously cordial relationship with Nixon. Nixon is so dumbfounded that he freezes, and either remembers or flashes forward to JFK's inauguration. It's as if he's thinking, "This is the moment when I lost the election—and this is where playing by the rules gets me."

Stone theorizes that the 18 minutes that Nixon removed from his White House tapes confirmed Nixon's role in the creation of a national security state—something he endorsed for patriotic reasons, but which grew out of control, killing JFK and subjecting America to the trauma he felt at losing his brother. The gap is Nixon's own Rosebud, but Stone, to his credit, leaves its meaning as mysterious and irreducible as that of Charles Foster Kane's childhood sled. It's a pretext for free association, for fantasy—for Nixon's, and Stone's, dreams and nightmares of America.

Nixon's taping himself, then claiming as he listens to the recordings that he never said this or that, and running the tape back as if to reverse and then re-record history, is a microcosm of Stone's filmmaking approach. There's a gap between what Nixon said and did and what he wishes he had said and did; between Nixon's aspirations to greatness and the verdicts of the media, the public, and history itself.

The essence of Stone's approach is telegraphed by an image in the movie's prologue: a slow tracking shot around a movie projector, ending with the bulb shining into the viewer's eyes. The entire film is multiplaned projection: Nixon projecting his goals and fears onto America, and America returning the favor. —M.Z.S. 

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Courtesy Buena Vista Pictures
Anthony Hopkins in Oliver Stone's Nixon
Video: Nixon

KEYWORDS

video essay  |  Oliver Stone  |  Hollywood  |  American President  |  Cold War  |  film review  |  biopic

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FURTHER RESEARCH

Nixon screenplay

THE AUTHORS

Kevin B. Lee is editor of the Keyframe journal at Fandor and programming executive at dGenerate Films.

More articles by Kevin B. Lee

Matt Zoller Seitz is a writer and filmmaker whose debut feature, the romantic comedy Home, is available through Netflix and Amazon. His writing on film and television has appeared in The New York Times, New York Press, and The Star Ledger, among other places. He is also the founder of The House Next Door, a movie and TV criticism website.

More articles by Matt Zoller Seitz
Author's Website: The House Next Door