Is Oliver Stone's movie 'Nixon' historically accurate?

Nixon

in 1995, Oliver Stone's Nixon was released in theaters. Nixontells the story of the political and personal life of former U.S. President Richard Nixon, one of the most infamous Presidents in US history. The movie narrates the Watergate Scandal that led to Nixon’s downfall, his role in the Vietnam War and in American political life in the 1960s and early 1970s. The motion picture had an all-star cast and it included Anthony Hopkins, who played Nixon and Joan Allen who played his wife, Pat. Numerous other prominent actors had roles in the movie and these included Powers Booth, James Woods, Paul Sorvino, Bob Hoskins and Larry Hagman.

The film was poorly received by the public and was a box office flop. Despite its failure at the box office, the movie was critically well-received and was nominated for several Oscars including one for Anthony Hopkins and Joan Allen. The movie begins just as the Watergate Scandal was about to emerge. It opens when some of the infamous ‘plumbers’ were arrested at the Watergate Hotel in 1972. Then the film progresses to 1973 and the breaking of the scandal. Much of the film is centered around the reminiscences of Nixon, during a conversation. The film is narrated in flashbacks. Even after his death, Richard Nixon has remained a very divisive figure in the United States. Some conservatives still admire the man and his achievements, including Roger Stone.

The Nixon Family were horrified by the portrayal of President Nixon and his wife, ‘they called the motion picture as ‘reprehensible’. How accurate was Stone’s portrayal of Nixon the man and the President and his family? Did Stone distort the truth in his effort to make a statement about American politics and history? Could it be viewed as a genuine and reliable representation of what occurred during the most controversial Presidency in modern American History?

The Portrayal of Nixon

Oliver Stone in 1995

Nixon portrays President Nixon as an unstable man. The characterization of Nixon by Anthony Hopkins showed him to be given to violent rages, periods of indecision and morbid introspection. The portrayal of the President in the movie was one that left the viewer in little doubt that Richard Nixon was somewhat unhinged and had serious problems. There are several scenes in the movie where he is portrayed as drinking heavily and often uncontrollably. Stone clearly shows the viewer that Nixon had at least a drink problem and was also possibly an alcoholic.

There is some evidence to back this up and several secret service agents have declared that they often guarded the President when he was inebriated. There were times when this clouded his judgment and led to potentially disastrous decisions being taken, such as a planned strike against North Korea. The instability of Nixon is shown in the movie in his dealings with his subordinates, he is regularly shown as acting in a high-handed manner and being very disrespectful.

This has been contradicted by historians’ and those who worked with Nixon even during the height of the Watergate Scandal. His Secretary of State Henry Kissinger noted that he the former President was rarely angry with his colleagues and always respected differences of opinion’ [1]. Moreover, Nixon was always rational in his decision making and willing to take on board other people’s views and this is not shown in the movie. According to Kissinger ‘Few presidents have agonized more deeply or meticulously over his decisions than did Nixon, at least in making foreign policy. Nixon's decision-making reflected a nearly obsessive reluctance to overrule subordinates to their faces’ [2].

According to these accounts, Nixon during even the the most intense pressure was rational and developed sophisticated strategies until the end of his term. The movie seems to suggest that many of the more controversial policies of Nixon were related to his psychological issues such as his insecurity. Stone depicts Nixon’s continued commitment to the already lost Vietnam War to be partly a result of his mental health issues. The movie seems to show that America was led by someone who was unfit for the White House. Historians have acknowledged that the peculiar psychology of Nixon was a factor in his policy making but also point out that he was also a very capable politician and strategist as seen in the rapprochement with Communist China[3]. However, there is some reason to believe that Nixon was paranoid and depressed and this was particularly the case after the Watergate Scandal. In this regard, Stone’s portrayal of Nixon is largely accurate if somewhat exaggerated.

Nixon’s Early Years

The Watergate Hotel- scene of the notorious break in ordered by Nixon

The movie is not sympathetic to Nixon but it does try and understand the origins of his psychological problems that later manifested themselves as paranoia and depression. The Stone film gives considerable attention to Nixon's difficult boyhood years to explain his peculiar and challenging character. Nixon came from a poor family and he knew hard times.

His relationship with his mother was difficult, his father was very demanding. His austere Quaker mother made him feel very insecure and unloved. His parents instilled in him the idea that happiness was for the next life. Nixon knew tragedy as a boy and the death of his two brothers, affected him deeply[4]. Stone’s movie also accurately shows his humiliations as an untalented football player in which he was used as a tackling dummy by better and larger players. The motion pictures presentation of Nixon’s early years is largely accurate.


Nixon’s rivalry with the Kennedy’s

Nixon's resentment of JFK and his family is a recurring theme. Stone see’s Nixon as the opposite of the idealistic young JFK and his brother. There is no doubt that Nixon hated the Kennedy’s. They were his political rivals and JFK had beaten Nixon in the 1960 Presidential Election. Nixon despised the Kennedy’s because of their father, whom he regarded as a crook and their policies. He genuinely thought that Kennedy’s policies were a danger to America and its ways of life. There has been a lot of speculation on the fact that JFK was assassinated and some argue that there was a conspiracy to kill the President and that it was ordered at the highest level. Stone’s movie intimates that Nixon was guilty over the death of JFK and that he was somehow involved. There are hints in the movie that Nixon was part of a vast conspiracy that planned the killing of the first Catholic President of the United States. However, there is absolutely no proof of this and no documentary evidence has ever come, to light that Nixon had any involvement in the assassination of JFK. Neither is there any hint that Nixon had connections to the Mafia or the Castro’s Cuba who some believe were involved in the assassination of JFK[5]. However, Nixon did not show sympathy for Kennedy, after his death. This was how much he hated the President. Based on his own memoirs he stated that he if he had been elected in 1960 he would not have been shot and seemed to imply that the murdered President was responsible for his own death.

Vietnam War

Stone makes clear that Nixon was guilty of some immoral tactics regarding the Vietnam War. By 1969 it was clear that American was in a military quagmire in South East Asia and that the US could no longer achieve its strategic goals. The Stone movie shows that Nixon refused to do the right thing and seek to end the war. The movie makes clear that Nixon wanted to carry on the war for purely selfish politic reasons and to placate the ring-wing of the Republican Party who were his main backers [6]. Nixon was committed to continuing the Vietnam War to stay in power. This led him to order the massive bombing of North Vietnam and to conduct covert wars in Laos and Cambodia. There are those who argued against Stone’s view, including Kissinger. They argue that Nixon inherited a war that had once been popular and that had not gone as planned. He could not disengage from Vietnam because it would give World Communism a boost during the Cold War[7]. Many have backed Stone’s version and that Nixon was reluctant to disengage from Vietnam for political reasons. They point to the fact that Nixon contacted North Vietnam when it seemed that Lyndon B Johnson was going to enter peace negotiations[8]. He told the communists that he would persecute the war with the utmost zeal and with the full-force of American power. This helped to undermine a peace process that could have ended the war much earlier and would have saved countless of lives. Stone’s movie showing Nixon putting his own political ambitions before peace in Vietnam are largely accurate.

Nixon and his wife

Pat Nixon the wife of the 37th President is shown as a tortured woman in the motion picture. She is played with real sympathy by Joan Allen, whose performance is in stark contrast to the over the top portrayal of Nixon by Hopkins. Pat Nixon was indeed a tortured woman and she had much to put up with. Nixon was a very difficult man to live with he was consumed by politics and this was his first love. Furthermore, he was a depressive and a heavy drinker and this meant that he could be difficult to be around. It seems that by the time that Pat Nixon was First Lady, she and the President had separate lives. In real life, Pat Nixon was a very nice person and well-respected by those who met her and she was described by all as ‘warm and caring’[9]. There are even reports of anti-Vietnam war protestors remarking how nice she was. The film depicts her as a heavy drinker and an alcoholic. This was not the case and, she and the President did not spend much time together and she disapproved of his drinking [10]. The portrayal of Pat Nixon was in this regard not really accurate.

How accurate is Nixon?

Oliver Stone’s movies have all been accused of being obsessed with conspiracy theories or even anti-American. The director does have unashamed left-wing sympathies and this influenced his movie. Nixon is shown as totally unfit for the role of President, someone who was unstable and even alcoholic. There is some basis for this, in fact, [11]. However, Nixon was a very contradictory man and Stone only shows one side of his character the one that suited his own political viewpoint. The film maker does accurately show how Nixon’s unhappy youth deeply influenced his character and later some of his policies. It also shows how he hated the Kennedy’s and their policies. The motion picture also shows how Nixon prolonged a war in Vietnam for his own selfish political reasons. Stone does not do justice to the success of Nixon on the world stage and slyly accuses him of being somehow implicated in JFK’s death. These are all distortions of the truth and do not represent the facts. Oliver Stone’s ‘Nixon’ does represent accurately some aspects of the 37th President’s life but in other ways, he misrepresents the facts and the truth. This is something that Stone never set out to do- he is a very political director and uses his movie to make a statement or to attack those he believes are undermining American democracy and freedoms. This means that Oliver Stone’s ‘Nixon’ is only somewhat historically accurate.

References

  1. Drew, Elizabeth (2007). Richard M. Nixon. The American Presidents Series. New York: Times Books), p. 341
  2. Drew, 2007, p. 312
  3. Drew, p. 321
  4. Ambrose, Stephen E. (1987). Nixon: The Education of a Politician 1913–1962. New York: Simon & Schuster), p. 113
  5. Safire, William (2005) [1975]. Before the Fall: An Insider View of the Pre-Watergate White House, with a 2005 Preface by the Author. Transaction Publishers. ISBN 978-1-4128-0466-0. Originally published: Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday), p. 213
  6. Safire, p. 211
  7. Gaddis, John Lewis (1982). Strategies of Containment: A Critical Appraisal of Post-war American National Security Policy. Oxford: Oxford University Press), p. 178
  8. Drew, p. 119
  9. Frick, Daniel (2008). Reinventing Richard Nixon. Lawrence, Kans.: University of Kansas Press), p. 145
  10. Drew, p. 345
  11. Frick, 217
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