Instead of calling it "Nixon," Oliver Stone could have avoided a lot of grief by naming his latest hot-button movie "A Nixon" or "My Nixon" or "Oliver Stone: What I Think of Nixon" or "My View of Nixon as Sympathetic if You Forget He Was Demented."
Stone could have assuaged some of his critics by doing what NBC did in 1988 in titling its version of Gore Vidal's book about Abraham Lincoln "Gore Vidal's Lincoln." Or he could have made "Nixon" a musical. After all, no one attacked Andrew Lloyd Webber because Eva Peron didn't really know or sing with Che Guevera.
In any case, Wednesday's release of the highly opinionated "Nixon" has reignited the debate over filmmakers as historians. The issue is especially relevant for docudrama-laden TV, where "Nixon" was preceded this month by "Kissinger and Nixon," a TNT movie based mostly on a book by Walter Isaacson. And where PBS on Jan. 8 will rerun its own three-hour "Nixon," a highly worthy "American Experience" documentary from 1990.
Like his controversial "JFK," Stone's "Nixon" meshes with the nation's cynicism of the '90s. It's been lauded by many critics but lambasted by many historians and journalists as being fictional in some spots.
"I believe we are within the spirit of the truth of what happened," Stone told one TV interviewer. That's enough for Roger Ebert. He and his partner, Gene Siskel, gave "Nixon" an epic thumbs way, way up on their syndicated TV program last Sunday, never once mentioning the possibility that portions are historical balderdash. "Oliver Stone is myth-making, and it's legitimate for movie directors to do that," Ebert told USA Today recently.
Preceding "Nixon" on the screen is a disclaimer--more detailed than most of those grafted to TV movies on historical figures--saying, among other things, that the film is "based on numerous public sources and on an incomplete historical record" and that "characters have been condensed and some scenes among protagonists have been hypothesized or condensed."
As in TV movies, though, you're not told which characters or scenes have been "hypothesized"--code for made up--or "condensed."
One of Stone's "hypothesized" scenes finds Watergate co-conspirator E. Howard Hunt insisting to White House counsel John Dean that Nixon knew of the original break-in that triggered the Watergate scandal that brought him down.
That conversation never occurred, Dean, a paid consultant on "Nixon," told "Dateline NBC" Wednesday night. Dean: "I told Oliver about that, and he said, 'What really is happening is this is a flashback from Richard Nixon's point of view, who will have conceived that you were meeting with Hunt under these circumstances,' and I had to say, 'Indeed, that's probably right.' "
In an interview with Bob Costas in the same "Dateline NBC" piece, Stone said that "Nixon" was "dramatic history." He joined some TV docudramatists in evoking the Shakespeare defense, noting that the Bard had also mixed fact and fiction in his histories. Shakespeare, however, never intimated that he was presenting historical truth (as Stone does, despite his hedging). Moreover, Shakespeare's plays were originally staged before a couple of thousand people in the Globe Theatre, not beamed across the airwaves to the multitudes or shown globally in movie theaters while also getting bonus resonance in TV news stories and interviews.
Stone, for example, is this week's point man in the campaign to publicize "Nixon" on TV, and on Saturday night he shows up with his Nixon, Anthony Hopkins, and a couple of historians in a taped interview with former network TV correspondent Sander Vanocur on the History Channel, followed by a documentary, "The Real Richard Nixon."
And Stone already has met Dan Rather "one on one" during "The CBS Evening News." In the heavily billed, taped chat that ran Tuesday as part of a "Nixon" package, Rather--must he be this brutal?--asked Stone, "Why Richard Nixon, and why now?" Out of the park it went.
After saying that Nixon's daughters were calling his movie "reprehensible," Rather asked Stone: "Is that true?" Stone said it wasn't. No more questions. End of story.
On Tuesday's "Good Morning America," Charles Gibson warmed up for Stone's coming appearance on the ABC program by chatting with James Woods, who plays key Nixon aide H.R. Haldeman in the movie. When Gibson complimented Woods on a line he says to John Ehrlichman in "Nixon," Woods replied that he had ad-libbed it. Well, as long as it was within the spirit of what Haldeman would have said had he said it.
"We had to push into an area of intuition and creating dialogues really behind closed doors," Stone told Gibson the next morning. "Very few people knew the real Richard Nixon," he said. "In our movie, [even] Pat Nixon . . . seems incapable of getting to know him." Then how can Stone presume to know him? Gibson didn't ask.
Stone then gave a withering explanation for one of the most controversial themes of his movie, that Nixon, while vice president, had a role in planning an alleged CIA plot to assassinate Cuban dictator Fidel Castro and, as Haldeman says, "in some crazy way, that got turned back on Kennedy." He means the murder of President John F. Kennedy.
Why put that in the movie? "I think it's an area of mystery," Stone replied, "but I think we have quite a bit of facts to that effect." But he offered none, ultimately concluding that he believed "Nixon was at the very beginning a founder of political murders in this country." More speculation.
The Costas piece (produced by Lee J. Hoffman and Bruce Cornblatt) was thoughtful and the most incisive yet on Stone and his movie.
Especially revealing was an exchange in which the filmmaker explained why his movie appears to be so much softer on Ehrlichman, who is still alive, than on Nixon and Haldeman, who are dead. In one scene, in fact, Ehrlichman comes off as a relative voice of reason, contrary to the way Dean told "Dateline NBC" that he remembered him. Stone said that he didn't regard Ehrlichman as the White House conscience, but that he gave Ehrlichman these lines because "I wanted someone in there just to ask some of these questions so that we could see Nixon's reactions, and Haldeman's reactions." In other words, he needed a dramatic device, so he created his own Ehrlichman?
Stone told Costas that he was "probing for every detail" about Nixon, but that "at a certain point we had to let that go, and we had to move into the area of speculation." In other words, when facts run dry, you automatically speculate?
Costas wondered if Stone ever thought of Nixon's daughters while speculating about their father. Costas seemed to have in mind a scene in which Pat Nixon asks her husband for a divorce. Stone said he had to keep "the greater good" in mind.
"They may be hurt by the images of their father that are painful to them, but I don't think they would deny that there is some truth in it. I would hope that they would acknowledge their father the way he may have been seen by others, and then move on to a deeper understanding of their own father."
Acknowledge the way "he may have been seen by others"? In other words, take it in stride that Stone depicts him as a lunatic at times, and grow from the experience?
Costas should have asked what Stone meant by saying earlier that his movie could not have been made if Nixon were still alive. And "Dateline NBC" should have mentioned questions raised about some of the 168 research footnotes that Stone attached to the "Nixon" script provided to movie critics.
Stephen E. Ambrose, author of three well-regarded Nixon biographies and a critic of the "Nixon" script, told USA Today recently that Stone sometimes cites him in the footnotes as having said "the exact opposite" of what he wrote.
For better or for worse, though, TV movies and theatrical features from the likes of Stone are now offering the United States its most indelible history lessons. For millions of Americans, "Nixon" will become the definitive Nixon, just as the Costas interview is the definitive TV portrait of Stone to date. If "Dateline NBC" just happened to butcher him in the editing room or to present his comments out of context, not to worry. Stone knows about the corners you have to cut sometimes in putting on a good show.