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'Nixon': History or Stone's Story?

December 25, 1995|BOB WOODWARD | THE WASHINGTON POST

The authentic images of the real Richard Nixon will be replayed for generations. Two videos will likely stand out. First, Nixon's famous 1952 Checkers speech, one of live television's rawest and most emotional moments, in which he successfully appealed to the public for his political survival and forced Dwight Eisenhower to keep him on the ticket as his running mate. Second, Nixon's 1974 farewell to the White House staff the day he resigned the presidency--another raw and emotional moment. In those 22 years between the pleading and the goodbye lies the heart of Nixon's political career.

Future viewers, who never had the real Nixon in their lives, will likely ask: How could such a man have been president? Even those of us who lived through Nixon's era have asked that question.

In Oliver Stone's new movie, "Nixon," he and actor Anthony Hopkins, in the title role, attempt to find answers. But for all the power and superb spirit of this movie they never reach the heights of the real Nixon of those speeches. Nixon himself later wrote of the Checkers speech: "Apparently my emotional nerve endings had been rubbed so raw by the events of the previous few days that I was able to convey the intensity of my feelings to the audience."

Raw, rubbed nerve endings were the theme of Nixon's life, and his story was of triumphs and failures on the epic scale. This is the movie-maker's dilemma: The actual facts of the rise and fall of Richard Nixon cannot be made more dramatic, no matter how they might be dressed up.

But Stone has not made a history. As best as I can tell, about half the movie is based on facts. The other half ranges from sound speculation to borderline slander.

What Stone has undertaken is nothing less than a cinematic psychoanalysis of perhaps our most mysterious president. As with all psychoanalysis, the result is a mixture of fact, interpretation and some fantasy.

A single question--Why?--pulses through "Nixon." The movie Nixon (like the real Nixon) searches mercilessly for scapegoats--the East Coast, the Kennedys, the CIA. Hopkins, as Nixon, says "the press, the kids, the liberals--they're out there trying to figure out how to tear me down." But Stone and Hopkins show that Nixon did it to himself.

Why?

In scene after scene, Stone shows Nixon searching for a qualified analyst, someone to explain him to himself. Desperately, Nixon auditions everyone around him on his psychic casting couch--from his wife, Pat, to his top aide, H.R. "Bob" Haldeman; from his mother, Hannah, to the 19-year-old woman he confronts during an anti-war protest, who tells him that even the president is not in control, that the system is an unmanageable "wild beast."

In the end, Nixon gets the analyst he deserved--Oliver Stone. Both manifest paranoia. Though Stone shows some tenderness and empathy, like a good shrink Stone is relentless. And his ultimate version of Nixon is, in many respects, at least as compelling as the truth.

*

I've spent some hours trying to truth-squad the movie and its annotated script--which cites such sources as books, tapes and testimony in 168 footnotes. Stone has the outline of Nixon's life about right. He sees the centrality of Watergate. The movie begins with the Watergate burglary in June 1972 as Nixon is seeking reelection as president, and it ends with Nixon's resignation. Most characters are at least partially true to life; the only totally concocted one is a rich Texas oilman, played by Larry Hagman.

Stone nicely portrays some of the complex reality of Nixon's key relationships with men--particularly with Henry Kissinger, and with his two chiefs of staff, Haldeman and Alexander Haig.

Nixon's interactions with women in the film--particularly with his mother and with Pat--are wildly speculative, however, and among the least supported parts of the film. But Stone uses these invented scenes convincingly to show Nixon's deep isolation and his cold, needy, rocky love. They are high drama but very bad history.

In a manufactured confrontation near the end of the movie, Nixon and his wife get into a spat about the secret White House tape recordings. "No one will ever see those tapes," Nixon says. "Including you!"

"And what would I find out that I haven't known for years?" Pat replies in this fictitious conversation. "What makes it so damn sad is that you couldn't confide in any of us. You had to make a record . . . for the whole world."

"They were for me," Nixon says. "They're mine."

"No," Pat answers. "They're not yours. They are you."

To Stone's credit, however, the movie quite nicely lays out the whole range of illegal activities undertaken by Nixon's administration--bogus national-security wiretaps, the payment of hush money to the Watergate conspirators, the break-in at the office of Daniel Ellsberg's psychiatrist in the truly bizarre effort to discredit the man who had leaked the Pentagon Papers in 1971.

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