Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Super Delegates: Richard M. Nixon in "Nixon" (1995)

Anthony Hopkins
Welcome to Super Delegates, a bi-monthly column released on Tuesdays and are done in part to recognize politics on film, specifically in regards to Oscar-nominated works. With this being an election year in the United States, it feels like a good time to revisit film history's vast relationship with politicians of any era and determine what makes them interesting while potentially connecting them to the modern era. The series plans to run until the end of this 2016 election cycle, so stay tuned for every installment and feel free to share your thoughts on films worthy of discussion in the comments section.

Release Date: December 22, 1995
Directed By: Oliver Stone
Written By: Stephen J. Rivele, Christopher Wilkinson, Oliver Stone
Starring: Anthony Hopkins, Joan Allen, Powers Boothe
Oscar Nominations: 4
-Best Actor (Anthony Hopkins)
-Best Supporting Actress (Joan Allen)
-Best Original Screenplay
-Best Original Score
Delegates in Question:
-President Richard M. Nixon

*NOTE: Part of the Richard Nixon Series.

Regardless of your thoughts on the man's work, Richard M. Nixon has proven in the 40 years since leaving office that he is cinema's greatest president. Sure, Abraham Lincoln may be more noble and present a side to democracy that is ideal, but how interesting is it to paint his successes in redundant fashion? As Super Delegates has hopefully proven, Nixon has usurped the 16th president in this time by making films that paint democracy in a far more dynamic light. Yes, it is more corrupt and how evil Nixon was will remain up to the audience's judgment. However, his popularity as a divisive figure has made cinema try and treat him as both villainous and redemptive. Nowhere has it been nearly as effective as it was in director Oliver Stone's epic Nixon, which chronicled the president's political career through the guise of a Greek tragedy.

Plenty should be noted that Stone is far from the most faithful director in political cinema. For instance, his first presidential film JFK is riddled with inaccuracies that have since been debunked. Even with Nixon, he received letters from the Nixon administration accusing Stone of defaming his career. It is true that this was based more on the script than actual film, but Stone stood his ground and insisted that he was trying to sympathize an otherwise pariah in the modern political landscape. It can be seen in moments that are intimate yet powerful, such as when Nixon looks up to a painting of John F. Kennedy during his last day in office and suggests that Kennedy was who Americans wanted to be while Nixon was the reality. It's a somber ending, and one that likely fueled the Nixon administration's backlash, as well as letters from Buena Vista's parent studio Disney that further placed allegations on Stone.

As also seen later in Frost/Nixon, the most fascinating part of Nixon was that he was a quiet and paranoid man. During his time in office, he could be seen eating alone during dinner. He didn't wish to be the center of attention. It was Watergate that did him in, and it lead to accusations that would ruin his career. No matter what he did before, Watergate would not only ruin his career, but cloud successor Gerald Ford's choice to pardon him. Even then, Nixon is a film that attempts to show both sides of the coin. It includes his early struggle to compete against the Kennedys before initially failing at politics. He would return with charisma and battle scars that made his comeback story a little bit bizarre.

Even the good side of Nixon is a puzzling story. With everyone knowing how the story ends - literally seen with the opening scene's Watergate moment - it only seemed right to patch in the cracks for the president who maybe was a good man who shouldn't have had power. It was power that made him paranoid and unable to trust anyone. He was flawed in damaging ways, and his cabinet only helped to make the decisions a little tougher to decipher as tragedy came along. He was credited with ending the draft, but also prolonged the Vietnam War. He was a man with good and bad to his credit, and there would be no president as controversial in the years that followed until George W. Bush. Everyone had their mishaps, but most of the subsequent presidencies were seen as an attempt to regain the public's trust because of Nixon's follies.

It is effective cinema that Stone could cast the unconvincing Anthony Hopkins (the only actor to receive two Oscar nominations for playing presidents) as Nixon and eventually make him the definitive take of the president. The actor brought along his rich accent and his somewhat specific face that never quite embodied Nixon's. However, it was all meant to not take away from the performances at the center. This would be about the subtext of which the man would be defined. With an ensemble too large to properly credit here, the film is another example of Stone pushing his political agenda through cinema. The one benefit is that he makes it electric while mixing archival footage with quick editing and stylistic flourishes. JFK was a procedural. Nixon was a Greek tragedy. It wasn't the most faithful Nixon movie ever, but it fit every last line that Stone wanted to use to make the president seem sympathetic.

If there is one thing that could be seen as endearing about Nixon's administration, it's the example of how one event can define a presidency. For a man who did so much, he is remembered for his one error. While it was an egregious one, it does overshadow the many good things that he's done. Maybe his career will never be resolved for its positive attributes. It's what makes him a genuinely fascinating force on screen. You want that catharsis that never comes. It definitely raises questions of every president before and after. How is their career impacted by one decision? It makes things tougher and paints the larger picture in obtuse ways. Maybe it takes some distance to properly assess, or even a sensationalized account to understand the character better. Who knows how Barack Obama will look in 15 years once he's several presidents behind the commander in chief. It's hard to really know.

So all that can be done is to hope for the best and don't let irrationality distract from the right thing. It's definitely a struggle that people who want power face. Maybe Nixon was an extreme example, but it's still staggering that it happened on camera and in most living people's lifetimes. It's an event that will be remembered for some time. Still, with the current campaign trying to paint Bill Clinton in a negative light, it's just further proof that legacies can be reshaped or attempted to be redefined decades later. The only question is who you'll choose to believe, or if you'll even notice the vulnerability that comes with tough decisions. No presidency will ever be perfect, and that's not a tragedy. It's just hopefully something that won't define their legacy in a negative way.

No comments:

Post a Comment