As one political season comes to a close (and another gears to begin), I thought it may be appropriate to use my MatchFlick space to examine one of the great political bio-pics of the 90's (or any era), Oliver Stone's haunting and haunted NIXON. What Stone & screenwriters Stephen J. Rivele and Christopher Wilkinson have to say about government and politics in the 60's (through the skeptical eye of the 90's) remains a relevant and relatable editorial even in 2012.
NIXON is ultimately a dark, caustic look at the men drawn to politics & what politics does to them and their souls once they become a part of its coil. And I'd like to examine that expression in a little piece I'm calling...
THE DARKNESS REACHING OUT FOR THE DARKNESS: WHAT OLIVER STONE'S NIXON CAN TEACH US ABOUT POLITICS AS USUAL IN AMERICA
Most viewers (of any age) will go into NIXON knowing the basics: he grew up poor, clawed his way to the Presidency and lost it all in a bid for power and unscrupulous control over the democratic process. Reference to Nixon in popular culture tends to portray him either as a villain or a clown, but Stone treats Nixon as a tragic hero, tracing his rise from small town Californian to the Presidency and illustrating in painstaking detail his subsequent fall from grace. The movie seeks to understand and explain Nixon as a man in history and ultimately paints a sympathetic portrait of a gifted and brilliant careerist yet natural born loser who had greatness within his grasp but who let his personal demons drive him to destroy all that he fought so hard to accomplish.
What the filmmakers do exceptionally well in exploring their hero is dissecting how one man's psychology can cause long, roiling ripples when that man finds himself at the helm of history-in-the-making. Richard Nixon had a singularly immense impact on the course of global politics in the post-war era, and Stone and company examine every corner of his psyche not only in an effort to understand the man and what made Nixon tick, but to also shed light on the long term effects of his actions and behaviors. In doing so, the filmmakers find themselves ruminating on the very nature of government and politics, seeking to explain (as is needed in Nixon's story) what kind of person aspires to public service, what their motives and motivation may be, and finally what the process does to them.
Oliver Stone is, of course, a well-known cynic. His views on the Military-Industrial Complex and all its far-reaching tentacles had previously been on display loudly and clearly in movies like JFK, BORN ON THE 4TH OF JULY, and SALVADOR. So it's no surprise that in NIXON, he takes a similarly jaded stance, arguing that the corruption of those in power is inevitable.
Nixon, however, is cast initially as a fairly noble man among those who are easily absorbed into the shadows. He is portrayed as a troubled figure, very much aware of the power of money and the lure of easy temptations, but a man who rejects these dangling fruits in favor of a moral and modest approach to civic duty.
The movie takes us inside a clandestine meeting between Nixon and a character named "Jack Jones" who serves as a composite for men with ties to big oil and a sense of entitlement when it comes to preserving an American way of life that consistently sees these same men retaining their cultural and financial upper hand. Jones, who coincidentally meets with Nixon in Texas on the eve of the Kennedy Assassination (more on that later), implies that a Nixon run at the Presidency in '64 will help to assure the "Right" course for the country, but it is also implied that Jones and his sinister cohorts would expect Nixon to support their John Birch agenda. Nixon is portrayed in this moment as a strong, upstanding man with a hardy moral conviction. Just six years shy of Watergate, Nixon rebuffs this overture. He refuses Jones' money, women, and intimidation. He is the incorruptible politician, standing strong in the face of easy sex, bribery, and threats.
As the story progresses, Nixon grapples with all manner of poison apples, deflecting repeated attempts at pooling his potential power with those who wish to subvert democracy for their own gain. In the end, though, Nixon of course does succumb to the might and the madness of his position. His need to see himself as pure and good is completely undone by his even stronger urges toward maintaining his authority, preserving his celebrity, battening down his captive audience, and saving his ability to control his own image (ironic for a guy who still lives on as a popular Halloween mask). By the final curtain, his moral stance turns out to be nothing more than a smokescreen and his willingness to abandon his ideals evident. Nixon refuses Jones' enticements not because he has no interest in subverting democracy but because he wants to do his subverting on his own terms.
Through this disintegration, Stone shows us that whenever there are men who seek to do good in the world (regardless of how altruistic or alternately twisted their motivations may be) and who have a chance at making a difference, they will be courted, enchanted, and eventually corralled by those who wish to remain in the dark, running their own agenda and controlling the world through the influence of their sinful wares. The great irony is that Nixon (in Stone's irony-laden opera) resists these men again and again, only to be unmoored by his own personal and self-esteem issues. The film's sardonic statement is that politics will unfailingly draw both those who threaten our rights as citizens by attempting to hijack our elected officials and those who will annihilate our rights due to their own ceaseless neediness and relentless self-service. So, we're screwed either way, basically. All in all, a dark view of The System but one that many of us, after witnessing decades of corporate and corrupt influence, still share in 2012.
Stone also introduces some of his usual pet themes into the narrative. The movie incorporates meditations on the Viet Nam War, the role of the media in controlling the political and cultural landscape, and the Kennedy Assassination. Not surprisingly, these events are woven as well into the movie's mordant take on the shadow cast by the frailties of men within the Military-Industrial Complex in the 50's, 60's, and 70's.
As in JFK (JFK, by the way, is actually a much more idealistic and hopeful political drama than NIXON; its depiction of one public official fighting a mountain of malevolence is practically CAPRAESQUE compared to the Nihilism of NIXON), the MIC is depicted as a Frankenstein Monster, a forever morphing conglomeration of ill will, propulsive blowback, and black ops side projects, roaming the countryside unchecked and unruly, wreaking havoc and stomping out dissent.
The Kennedy Assassination itself (revisited by Stone and without the weight of Jim Garrison's scattershot kitchen sink conspiracy theories, given a much cleaner thesis) shows up as an Albatross around Nixon's neck, a tragic chain of events unfolding from the runaway train that evolved from the fumbled Bay of Pigs invasion. Nixon fears that the wheels he set in motion toward Cuba when he was serving as Eisenhower's VEEP have somehow gone off the rails, taken on a life of their own, and were at the heart of what went down in Dallas. The Frankenstein Monster stalks Nixon at every other turn (leaving room for the specter of his domineering mother to haunt him the rest of the time), constantly, incessantly, infernally reminding him of his past sins and the darkness that lives behind his thin, ineffectual mask of goody two-shoes wholesomeness. Like the darkness that most of us believe lurks beneath the toothy, shiny veneer of most professional politicians, the indiscretions and missteps of men like Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock reinforcing our suspicions that "they're all like that." Some of them just lack the polish and the ability to hide it.
Nixon finally realizes, during a confrontation with anti-war protestors, that the government, the Monster, is wholly untamable. That the coiling Beast engulfs as it roves and that it cannot be reined in, steered, or stopped. That the mechanics that began in the seeds of the Cold War and the Red Scare, that grew wings in Cuba, came to fruition in Dallas and at the Watergate.
And Stone's outlook is still applicable today because, sadly, the political landscape has not changed all that much since the days of an unaccountable intelligence community and a power mad president. Political assassinations and break-ins may have been replaced by backroom deals and ballot tampering (okay, those have always been indulged in as well), but the lure of casual corruption, the constant battle for cultural control, and the men and their motivations remain the same.
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Every other Tuesday
The 90ís was one of the great decades in American Cinema, and I intend to explore it one film, genre, or director at a time.
Matt Berry is a copy writer, music journalist & occasional author of Weird Tales-inspired short fiction from Illinois who loves talking and writing about movies and music almost as much as he loves the music and the movies themselves. And the more coffee, pie, and cigarettes consumed during those discussions, the better!|
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