A lot of people have made comparisons between Bush Jr. and Nixon regarding who the worst president of the modern era is, citing parallel abuses of power between Nixon’s handling of Vietnam and Watergate with Bush’s war on terror and use of executive privilege. With Ron Howard’s adaptation of Peter Morgan’s play Frost/Nixon coming out in December, and with Oliver Stone’s much anticipated biopic of our current president coming out next weekend, I think it’s high time to take a look at how several actors have attempted to embody one of Hollywood’s favorite presidents to put onscreen, Richard Millhouse Nixon.
SECRET HONOR (1984)
Like with many careers of great directors from the seventies, the eighties were not a good time for Robert Altman. Between the fiasco that was Popeye and his early nineties comeback with The Player, Altman’s eighties career was littered with largely forgettable films, save for this underrated one-man show featuring Philip Baker Hall (probably most recognized for his work with P.T. Anderson) as a disgraced, post-presidency Nixon who recalls, with great brooding anger and resentment, the trials of his life and career in what is basically a 90-minute monologue.
Altman is perhaps best known for his overlapping dialogue, and while Secret Honor takes a 180 degree turn from the ensembles that defined Altman’s seventies career, Hall allows Nixon’s solitary dialogue to overlap itself, preventing the finishing of one thought or frustration to suddenly move on to another, as if Nixon’s life and character were so complex that not even he could articulate who he is or what he believes in. Nixon here is armed with a revolver, a tape recorder, and a bottle of scotch, wavering between fond recollection of his humble beginnings gone awry and unmitigated anger at those who he believes sought to destroy him at his every move. While the minimalist restraints in such an approach can be claustrophobic (one man, one room), this intimacy allows us to watch a man fall apart as he purges his many demons.
Nixon’s paranoia while in office extends here to his private, secluded post-presidency career, as his study is littered with surveillance material. Nixon narcissistically continues to record every thing he says and does (despite that such self-surveillance is what got him expelled from office in the first place), presuming that all of his ideas are important enough to be recorded, thereby naïvely refusing to admit he now exists alone in a nation that wants so badly to forget him. When Secret Honor ends, the surveillance cameras turn on Nixon himself, suggesting that the person Nixon fears most is the one staring at him in the mirror.
Released not long after Nixon’s death in 1994, Oliver Stone’s elephantine biopic attempts to cover every possible territory in the man’s life and presidency, positing his rise and fall as Shakespearean tragedy. While the film attempts to humanize Nixon, his lust for power is presented as always stemming from an inherent narcissistic God complex that has driven him tooth-and-nail since birth to prove his own innate superiority over all other men. Nixon constantly refers to himself in the third person, and anytime he and Haldeman (James Woods) discuss the myth of the American Dream in respect to their many abuses of executive privilege, neither Haldeman nor Nixon ever seem to believe any of that crap beyond which of their actions it can justify. Nixon’s constituents act as cheerleaders (especially when his presidency begins to fall apart), constantly massaging the president's inflated sense of self while expressing their very sincere doubts as soon as they step into the hallway of the oval office, reflecting the “community of consent” Nixon developed in the White House which only further divided him from the ideology of the growing population that wanted him out of office.
Nixon’s community of consent:
Stone’s biggest attempts at humanization are his use of flashbacks, but these only present Nixon’s habit of altering the truth as having been constant since childhood, and suggest that his self-destructive lust for power was the result of a disappointing performance as a college football player. Still, Stone makes little connection between the younger Nixons and the one who would become president, never showing how his “humble Quaker upbringing” (often his most potent political tool) led to a soulless state of power. This implausible, nuance-free scene (as only Oliver Stone can do it) portrays how Nixon’s presidency had never attempted to reflect the will or enforce the best interest of the American people, with the shadow of Lincoln forever echoing in the background:
However, Hopkins’ and Stone’s Nixon is undeniably smart, presented as having had the rhetorical ability to squash the voices of dissent by his intimidating sheer force of personality. Nixon’s Nixon is made to be the type of slimy politician who could weasel his way into virtually any place of power, who could manipulate even the loudest of dissenters to vote for him against any aspect of their will, while somehow being able to separate himself from the most radical of the right wing. In other words, Stone sees Nixon as one of the greatest politicians in American history.
Although the tone of both Secret Honor and Nixon may refuse to admit it, there’s something funny to be found even in a nation’s most troubling hour. Dick asks what it would be like if a pair of airheaded high school girls had an unknowing, unintended role in the Watergate scandal and Nixon being shoved out of office. This film was a hard sell in 1999, a nostalgic political satire disguised as a teen comedy aimed at an audience far too young to know or care about the political history structuring its narrative. But for anybody willing to appreciate either type of film, Dick cleverly uses its protagonists to fill in every gap of the Watergate scandal, from the missing eighteen minutes on the tape to the identity of Deep Throat.
Dan Hedaya, who played a small role as a Nixon constituent in Nixon, here plays the titular president—and I must say, more so than anybody else who has embodied Tricky Dick, Hedaya actually appears somewhat in tandem with the president’s inimitable, cartoonish physical features with relatively little makeup. But Dick’s best surprise is its take on Woodward and Bernstein, which is about as far as one can get from Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman in All the President’s Men (1976). Berstein is played by The Kids in the Hall’s Bruce McCulloch and Woodward by a SNL-era Will Ferrell, and they’re hilariously interpreted as egotistical, immature, conceited man-children who seek to implicate Nixon in Watergate not for social justice, but in order to reign victor in a childish pissing contest between themselves.
But perhaps Dick’s smartest move is the very presence of the oblivious high school girls, who are still in the patriotic public school history class mode of treating the President of the United States as an a man of uncontested honor and dignity while being completely unaware of his questionable policies. We first meet these characters on a field trip to the White House, where the students are portrayed as equally ignorant of any protest going on outside as they are of the history on display within (and, in a great jab at the American state of mind, never showing excitement until they take a break at McDonald’s). Nixon’s presidency emboldened a new kind of skepticism amongst American voters, where the men of power are no longer seen as innocent until proven guilty, where America stopped believing that the White House always worked in the best interests of those outside rather than the personal interests of those inside.
Nixon destroyed the myth of the American President—a myth our current President has done nothing to restore—by proving that the righteous, moral, honest, decent, virtuous, noble, trustworthy role the Commander-in-Chief played in the stories learned in our first history classes is never the same as the man himself.
10 months ago