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This Is What Oliver Stone’s Movie About Nixon Got Right

Historians/History
tags: Oliver Stone, Nixon



Robert Brent Toplin was a professor of history at Denison University and is professor emeritus at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington. Currently he lives in Charlottesville, where he has taught occasional courses at the University of Virginia. Toplin has published several books about history, politics, and film, including "Oliver Stone’s USA: Film, History, and Controversy." Contact: rt2b@Virginia.edu


When a Hollywood filmmaker portrays a famous figure from the past, critics often express outrage over the portrayal. They denounce the filmmaker for taking too many artistic liberties and distorting the historical record. Oliver Stone came under that kind of attack in 1995 when he released Nixon, a dark and disturbing portrayal featuring actor Anthony Hopkins as President Richard M. Nixon.

The criticism appears less valid now. New evidence has come to light during the past decade that suggests Oliver Stone delivered several insights. Documents, tape recordings, interviews and testimonials reveal that Richard Nixon was somewhat like the maladjusted and sinister individual depicted in the controversial movie. The new evidence confirms that Nixon was troubled by deep insecurities. He frequently lied to the public, broke the law, pursued imagined enemies, and abused power. How Richard Nixon could achieve so much personal success but eventually wreck his legacy remains a mystery. Oliver Stone’s psychohistory of the flawed leader was not correct in every regard, and it contained some questionable claims. Like many Hollywood productions about famous people, the filmmaker simplified, compressed, and invented in an effort to design a coherent and compelling story. Nevertheless, in view of the stronger information base now available about White House shenanigans, Stone’s Nixon is worth another look.

When Oliver Stone promoted his movie back in 1995, he claimed the production offered a sympathetic portrait. Richard Nixon was a tragic figure, Stone emphasized. Emerging from a humble background, the future president climbed quickly in post-World War II American politics. Nixon was a giant leader in the classical tradition, said Stone. He “rose to the top then collapsed in a heap of hubris.” Stone’s movie probed the origins of Nixon’s self-destructive personality by drawing attention to his childhood in poverty, his stern parents, and his jealous feelings toward wealthy and privileged Americans of the Eastern Establishment. That resentment was especially directed at the Kennedys.

Oliver Stone’s movie resembled Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane (1941). Welles’s acclaimed film presented clues for understanding the motivation of a character that resembled William Randolph Hearst, a powerful newspaper publisher and politician. Stone looked to Nixon’s experiences in youth and as a young man for insights into his later behavior, especially actions that led to Watergate. Oliver Stone tried to make sense of a memorable speech Nixon gave to staffers when the disgraced President was about to leave the White House. That talk, which invoked personal memories from Nixon’s younger days, sounded disjointed. Stone’s drama treated those references as important hints about the fallen leader’s personality formation.

Oliver Stone’s movie appeared in late 1995, a year and a half after Richard Nixon died. In the years following Watergate, Richard Nixon worked assiduously to improve his public image. To a considerable degree, he succeeded in shaping a revised perspective on his place in history. By 1995, many Americans remembered Richard Nixon as the architect of bold foreign policies and as a surprisingly liberal leader in domestic affairs, exemplified by his support of environmental reforms. In view of the late President’s improved standing since his embarrassing resignation, Oliver Stone’s movie struck many viewers as heavy-handed and disrespectful.

Several critics savaged the film. They were unhappy with Stone’s portrayal of a paranoid, immoral, hard-drinking, unstable and power-hungry tyrant. Stone’s depiction “is not Nixon,” protested the President’s longtime friend, Ray Price. Historian Stephen E. Ambrose, who published a three-volume biography of Nixon, complained of inaccuracies. “If [Stone] wants to get deep into Nixon’s character, he’s got to get those drinks out of [Nixon’s] hands,” complained Ambrose, referring to the movie’s depictions of alcoholic consumption. Stone’s “got to clean up [Nixon’s] language, too,” insisted Ambrose. One of the most damning objections came from Diane Disney Miller, daughter of Walt Disney. She apologized publicly to Nixon’s two daughters. Miller expressed shame that her father’s company distributed a film that “did a disservice to your family, to the presidency, and to U.S. history.” President Nixon’s legacy would endure, asserted Miller, because “he left the world a better and safer place for millions of people . . . .”

So much information has come out since 1995 about Richard Nixon’s responsibility for criminal conspiracies, expanding death and destruction unnecessarily in the Vietnam War, and much more, that Rutgers historian David Greenberg concluded the new evidence renders “the pro-Nixon hagiography of yesteryear a musty artifact.” Breakthroughs began to appear a year after the release of Stone’s movie. Historian Stanley Kutler and the liberal advocacy group, Public Citizen filed a lawsuit against the National Archives and Records Administration that eventually won release of more than 3000 hours of White House recordings (previously only 63 hours had been made public). The final 340 hours of recordings became available for study in 2013.

Several important books resulted, analyses that describe a duplicitous politician. Kenneth Hughes’s Chasing Shadows describes Nixon’s interference in President Lyndon Johnson’s negotiations with North Vietnam shortly before the 1968 presidential election. The Nixon Tapes, edited and discussed by Douglas Brinkley (Rice University) and Luke A. Nichter (Texas A & M University – Central Texas) shows diverse examples of mischief at the White House, and One Man Against the World by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Tim Weiner connects much of the President’s lying and criminal behavior to his struggles with the Vietnam War.

Some of the most intriguing evidence about Richard Nixon that fortifies Oliver Stone’s portrayal can be found in Bob Woodward’s recent book, The Last of the President’s Men. That publication is based on lengthy interviews with Alexander Butterfield, a Nixon aide who told the Watergate committee about the existence of secret recordings. Butterfield characterizes the Nixon White House as “a cesspool.” He reports that the President encouraged sycophants to attack “enemies” (politicians, print and television journalists, and antiwar protesters, among others). Alexander Butterfield describes Nixon’s efforts to remove the “infestation” of portraits of John F. Kennedy in the staff’s offices (which backs up Stone’s speculation about the President’s obsession with the Kennedys). As for drinking and swearing, evidence from Butterfield and other sources indicates that the President was much more engaged in these excesses than biographer Stephen Ambrose recognized.

Journalist Bob Woodward recently summed up an impression that emerges from examining the tapes. Woodward said the recordings “depict a White House full of lies, chaos, distrust, speculation, self-protection, maneuver and counter-maneuver, with a crookedness that makes Netflix’s ‘House of Cards’ look unsophisticated.”

Evidence in tapes, documents, interviews, and other sources suggests that Oliver Stone delivered some thoughtful judgments when he offered a film-based portrait of the controversial President. It is now clear that the real Nixon was a darker figure than the disturbing, unbalanced character Anthony Hopkins played in Stone’s 1995 movie. Like many other examples of history from Hollywood, Nixon contained artistic flourishes that blurred distinctions between fact and fiction. Still, the movie raised pertinent questions about how Richard Nixon, an impressive achiever, ultimately became a tragic figure. Stone’s portrait appears closer to the true Richard Nixon than outraged critics recognized back in 1995. 



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