The man, the movie, the muddle


THE hysterical accusations flying around Nixon (15) may have led you to expect something pretty gruesome. Judging by the apoplexy of the columnists, Oliver Stone had gone further - and filthier - than ever before, in a cinematic Walpurgisnacht.

I was waiting to see a demonic Richard Nixon shooting up in the Oval Office, or at least smoking a joint; crooning to Pat Nixon to "Come On, Baby, Light My Fire"; and, perhaps, for the final coup de grace, slinking away from the grassy knoll in Dallas, on 22 November1963, a smoking gun in his hand. What tricks you missed, Ollie!

In fact, Nixon is quite a sober movie - even if its hero spends most of the time with a glass of bourbon in his hand. What Stone has given us is a prismatic, psychological biography of Nixon, following him from childhood to the grave, through, in Nixon's phrase, "victory, defeat and renewal". In a three-hour sprawl, the familiar Nixon landmarks are covered: the poverty of youth; the solid marriage to Pat; the prosecution of Alger Hiss for spying; the Checkers speech; bitter defeat by Kennedy; the presidency, Vietnam, and, of course, Watergate. Historiographically, Stone's main model is Fawn M Brodie's fine biography, Richard Nixon: The Shaping of His Character (1983). Cinematically, Stone's model is Orson Welles's Citizen Kane.

The movie opens with the camera prowling outside the White House gates, just as it did outside those of Kane's Xanadu. Of course, Stone doesn't reach Welles's heights, but the idea is the same: to sift through the shards of a shattered life, and piece together a tale of abused power and squandered greatness.

Is it factual? Stone has supplied an annotated screenplay (published by Bloomsbury) giving chapter and verse, in 168 footnotes, for each detail of his cinematic portrait. Having followed up many of the references, I can vouch that his use of sources is fair. His critics rely on invective. When they challenge Stone on fact, they are often guilty of the distortion they charge him with. For example, one of the biggest beefs is over Nixon's drinking.

Jonathan Aitken, in the Daily Telegraph, writes that the film portrays Nixon as a "near-alcoholic", and that Stone is "wickedly fraudulent" in attributing this calumny to Stephen Ambrose's biography. Aitken protests: "what he [Ambrose] actually wrote - `whatever Nixon's problems in life, and Lord knows he had many, alcohol was not one of them' - was the exact opposite of what Stone filmed."

All very conclusive. Except that the passage Aitken quotes was in the second volume of Ambrose's biography, published in 1989. In his third volume (1991), Ambrose changed tune: "Was drinking a problem for Nixon? There is much conflicting evidence on both sides of the question, enough to make any final judgement impossible." Ambrose, making that impossible final judgement, still concludes drinking was not "a problem", but expands: "That he sometimes drank to excess is clear, but never to the point that he was out of control." This is, in fact, close to Stone's depiction.

Such critics create a caricature of the movie (as depicting a criminal, alcoholic, foul-mouthed, mad-bomber President) - and then attack it as (surprise!) a caricature. Nixon is subtler, more fascinating. It has its lurches into fantasy: though Nixon was involved in assassination plots against foreign leaders, Stone's idea that a plot Nixon was involved in to kill Castro backfired into the killing of Kennedy is fanciful (the film's worst scenes are set in Texan rooms full of smoke and Cubans). But the movie also has its glints of truth: it is less a political harangue than a shifting psychological portrait. Its Nixon is startlingly, perhaps excessively, sympathetic.

Stone's Nixon is a riven, contradictory figure - at war with himself: idealistic yet also a cynic, heroically strong but also an emotional cripple, magnetically charismatic yet pathetically gauche. In scenes which, like Kane's Rosebud, reek of dollar-book Freud, Nixon's hunger for power is traced back to his craving for love in a stern Quaker upbringing. His bitterness is attrib- uted to the appalling emotional cost of his achievements: his nagging sense that he was a kind of fratricide, launched in life by the death of two of his brothers (one of whose place at law school Dick took), and on the presidency by those of Jack and Bobby Kennedy.

The key to Nixon - and his fall - may be that he lost touch with himself: he refers, in the film, to himself in the third person, so that Nixon at times seems merely to be curator of his own monument. After the Kent State University killing of four students by soldiers in 1970, Nixon confesses: "I'd like to offer my condolences. But Nixon can't." This is a self-aggrandiser living in a world outside himself - within the portals of history rather than the confines of human morality.

Anthony Hopkins gives an extraordinary performance as Nixon. He eschews prosthetic make-up or mere impersonation; Hopkins's head is rounder, less oval than Nixon's, with a snub rather than ski-slope nose; his voice too is raspier and more nasal than Nixon's, which was a kind of casuistic gurgle. But Hopkins catches the inner Nixon and displays it on the outside; his struggle is evident in the hunched shoulders, his corruption in the crooked smile and in the almost cross-eyes, each on the lookout for threat. He conveys, sometimes close to unbearably, Nixon's inner torture. There is a grotesque charm too, even grandeur, never more than when Nixon is pumped up by a crowd. Hopkins's version of the 1968 Republican Convention speech is genuinely stirring; the catch in his voice in his farewell speech, when declaring his "mother was a saint", deeply moving.

Hopkins is supported by a gallery of outstanding performances. Among them: Joan Allen's long-suffering Pat Nixon, loving Dick despite his achievements not because of them; Paul Sorvino's guttural and ingratiating Kissinger; James Woods's laconic Haldeman, taking patriotism to the point of xenophobia. Only Bob Hoskins's camp Hoover, a caricature cameo, disappoints.

The movie's true faults have nothing to do with accuracy. The problem is that it is two movies: a documentary race through Nixon's life; and (far more grippingly) a psychodrama. The two never quite meld; and the Forrest Gump-type weaving together of news footage with that of Hopkins breaks the illusion of the other scenes, loosening their dramatic grip. Part of this is intentional: Stone and his superb cameraman, Robert Richardson, use a bewildering range of shooting styles - black and white, colour, grainy home-movies, newsreel - sometimes flashing between several within a scene, to emphasise the artifice in writing, or filming, history. Stone is deliberately undermining the monolithic mystique of history. History is about shuffling together different versions - and Stone, right from the start, when he X-rays the inside of Nixon's tape-recorder, is intent on laying bare its mechanics.

Why does the right hate Stone so much? It may be the believer's disdain for the apostate. Stone, the son of a stockbroker, was a Nixonian before he went to Vietnam. The irony is that Nixon, more than most Hollywood films, has a respect for political conservatism. In its one truly great scene, Nixon goes to the Lincoln Memorial, in the middle of the night, to confront those demonstrating about Vietnam. "Liberals act like idealism belongs to them," Nixon tells the students. "That's not true. My family went Republican because Lincoln freed the slaves." In the shadow of the giant statue of Lincoln, Hopkins delivers the lines with such depth of feeling that you think that here is a great man. It is in this scene too that Nixon confronts his own and perhaps all politicians' impotence in the face of the intractable bureaucracy he terms "The Beast".

Stone has been accused of Marxist paranoia in his formulation of "The Beast", but it is little more than a grand metaphor, a Stone-like mixture of brilliance and baloney. Stone's energy and inquiring intellect tend to overreach themselves. Hence the frustration of Nixon - half masterpiece, half mess. Kissinger's verdict on Nixon fits Stone: "It's a tragedy, because he had greatness in his grasp, but he had the defects of his qualities."

Barry Sonnenfeld's Get Shorty (15) deserves more space than I have here - but not all the hype that has greeted it. John Travolta plays Chili Palmer, a professional loan-shark and amateur cineaste, who goes to Hollywood to collect a debt, and ends up trying to produce movies. (If the plot sounds familiar, you may be remembering the sharper and funnier Bullets Over Broadway.) Travolta is as sleekly enjoyable as ever, a debt-collector who relies on iron auth- ority rather than menace; Gene Hackman sports capped teeth, a silver beard and jewellery, as a slimeball producer, a big but craven man. And Danny DeVito steals a scene as the diminutive movie star of the title - think Dustin Hoffman with double the ego. But Sonnenfeld's direction is cartoonish, clashing with Scott Frank's niftily realistic dialogue (much of it wisely lifted from Elmore Leonard's novel). There's also casual, comic brutality (Travolta breaking a nose, Hackman being beaten up), more insidiously unpleasant than the stuff at which our moral guardians throw up their hands. Still, there's always Travolta. Watch the look of glee as he mimes to the end of Touch of Evil - it's the smile of a man who's glided through the barrier between reality and fantasy.

Cinema details: Review, page 76.

Alexis Sanchez has completed a £35m move to Arsenal, the club have confirmed
sportGunners complete £35m signing of Barcelona forward
Poor teachers should be fearful of not getting pay rises or losing their job if they fail to perform, Steve Fairclough, headteacher of Abbotsholme School, suggested
voicesChris Sloggett explains why it has become an impossible career path
world cup 2014
Ray Whelan was arrested earlier this week
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookA wonderful selection of salads, starters and mains featuring venison, grouse and other game
Arts and Entertainment
In a minor key: Keira Knightley in the lightweight 'Begin Again'
Arts and Entertainment
Celebrated children’s author Allan Ahlberg, best known for Each Peach Pear Plum
peopleIndian actress known as the 'Grand Old Lady of Bollywood' was 102
Wayne’s estate faces a claim for alleged copyright breaches
newsJohn Wayne's heirs duke it out with university over use of the late film star's nickname
Life and Style
It beggars belief: the homeless and hungry are weary, tortured, ghosts of people – with bodies contorted by imperceptible pain
lifeRough sleepers exist in every city. Hear the stories of those whose luck has run out
Mick Jagger performing at Glastonbury
Life and Style
fashionJ Crew introduces triple zero size to meet the Asia market demand
Santi Cazorla, Mikel Arteta and Mathieu Flamini of Arsenal launch the new Puma Arsenal kits at the Puma Store on Carnaby Street
sportMassive deal worth £150m over the next five years
Arts and Entertainment
Welsh opera singer Katherine Jenkins
musicHolyrood MPs 'staggered' at lack of Scottish artists performing
Life and Style
beautyBelgian fan lands L'Oreal campaign after being spotted at World Cup
Arts and Entertainment
Currently there is nothing to prevent all-male or all-female couples from competing against mixed sex partners at any of the country’s ballroom dancing events
Potential ban on same-sex partners in ballroom dancing competitions amounts to 'illegal discrimination'
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Business Analyst Consultant (Financial Services)

    £60000 - £75000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Business Analyst Consultant (Fina...

    Systems Administrator - Linux / Unix / Windows / TCP/IP / SAN

    £60000 per annum: Harrington Starr: A leading provider in investment managemen...

    AVS, JVS Openlink Endur Developer

    £600 - £700 per day: Harrington Starr: AVS, JVS Openlink Endur Developer JVS, ...

    E-Commerce Developer

    £45000 - £60000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: Exciting opp...

    Day In a Page

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
    Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

    A writer spends a night on the streets

    Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
    Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
    Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

    Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

    Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
    Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

    Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

    This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
    Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

    Why did we stop eating whelks?

    Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
    10 best women's sunglasses

    In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

    From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

    Richard III review

    Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice