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Oliver Stone’s ‘Nixon’: Whose Life Is It Anyway?

NEWSDAY

Did Richard Nixon meet at a desert retreat with right-wing zealots who demanded that the president guard their interests--or else? Was he haunted by memories of a plot to kill Fidel Castro that--Nixon feared--led instead to the murder of John F. Kennedy? Is it true that Nixon uttered a profound goodbye to a portrait of Kennedy before leaving the White House in disgrace?

Oliver Stone’s new movie, “Nixon,” is a provocative, personal view of the 37th president that festoons the empirical record with rosettes of hunch and hype and artful interpolation. And though far less fanciful and flamboyant than Stone’s overwrought 1991 flick “JFK,” the new film raises questions about the limits of creative license and the nature of objective “truth"--about the way Hollywood handles history.

As portrayed in Stone’s film, Nixon is driven, and ultimately devoured, by ambition and arrogance. Though the Nixon family has dismissed the movie as “erroneous and malicious,” many will view it as a remarkably human portrait of a leader who often seemed emotionally anemic--a rendering more sympathetic than a contrary director like Stone might have been expected to deliver.

Has Nixon, then, at last been revealed? Has Oliver Stone solved the psychological riddle that stumped Nixon-watchers for decades? Is “Nixon” really Nixon? Don’t bet on it. Film buffs and historians say that if American moviegoers expect reality from Stone--or any other director--they’re bound to be disappointed.

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Homer and Shakespeare fiddled with the facts, and their counterparts in contemporary cinema do the same. Remember, entertainment is the primary mission of movies. Enlightenment is another matter.

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“No movie or play can accurately depict the complex infinity of the past,” said Mark C. Carnes, history department chairman at Barnard College and editor of a new book called “Past Imperfect: History According to the Movies.” “There is no point bemoaning the liberties taken by dramatists because they are going to take them anyway.” Filmmakers are devoted first to art--not authenticity--and must always keep the demands of the marketplace in mind, Carnes said. “A degree of skepticism is absolutely essential when going to a feature film--particularly a big, expensive feature film.”

If a healthy dose of skepticism helps, so does the realization that movies, like all forms of art, are apt to say as much about practitioners of the craft as their subjects--and about audiences, as well. One person hates the director for overstating the case, another thinks the filmmaker manipulated the facts in brilliant fashion to arrive at a greater truth.

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“It’s in the eye of the beholder,” said veteran television news reporter Sander Vanocur, who hosts “Movies in Time,” an evening film series on cable TV’s History Channel. “One part of me rebels against looseness with the facts. The other part says that people have a right to interpret history in their own way.”

Directors have always cut themselves slack. D.W. Griffith’s landmark 1915 movie, “Birth of a Nation,” is widely viewed as a cinematic masterpiece, but his view of the South after the Civil War was retrograde, at best. Cast as heroes were keepers of Dixie’s flame--Ku Klux Klan members among them--while emancipated blacks were characterized as brutes.

A few recent movies--the coal-mine saga “Matewan” (1987) by director John Sayles, for example, and Bruce Beresford’s “Black Robe” (1991), dealing with 17th century Jesuits who tried to convert the Huron Indians of Canada--drew admiring notices for accuracy, but there are plenty of examples suggesting that most filmmakers, past and present, don’t let the details ruin a good story.

“It’s in the nature of drama that if something lasts two hours on the screen it will require condensation,” said Jonathan Kuntz, who teaches a course in the history of American cinema at UCLA. “Most important is to be true to the spirit of the event.”

A generation ago, movie makers were not always held to such high standards. If the movie worked, it worked--and that was the truth of the matter.

The 1960 blockbuster “Spartacus” extolled the rebel leader of Roman times--a historical figure who, despite the movie’s plot line, was not born into slavery, did not suffer death by crucifixion and never married the beautiful Varinia, a fictional character.

“PT-109,” a 1963 production celebrating the wartime heroics of John F. Kennedy, gives credit to the future president and his crew for rescuing a platoon of Marines stranded on a Japanese-held island. The Marines were snatched from danger, all right, but months after Kennedy’s ship was sliced in two by a Japanese destroyer--the famous incident during which Kennedy really did pull one of his crewmen to safety.

These lapses are not the sort that stir much controversy. Period pieces and rah-rah wartime recollections beg to be bent out of shape. But movies that mix contemporary themes and political commentary are the stuff of spontaneous combustion.

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The 1983 movie “Silkwood,” about a whistle-blower in the nuclear-power industry, made some critics furious because of what they felt was its diabolical, and unsubstantiated, subtext (specifically, that Karen Silkwood was killed by her employers).

Spike Lee got static from some critics for his selective use of biographical material in the 1992 movie “Malcolm X,” and Alan Parker was singed for exalting the FBI--and neglecting black heroes--in the 1988 film “Mississippi Burning,” based on the case of three slain civil rights workers.

Oliver Stone’s ability to make hypothesis seem like history may be without parallel. His cinematic techniques are devilishly convincing, and for many moviegoers it simply is impossible to tell where the facts stop and Stone begins rolling.

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“Stone has broken every rule, so to speak,” said Robert Sklar, professor of cinema studies at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. Sklar cautions against a rush to judgment, however, and says Stone’s unorthodox methods suggest he is driven to make powerful statements--and prompt debate. “Why did people start criticizing ‘JFK’ six months before it was released?” Sklar asked. “They knew it had some bite somewhere.”

Stone is hardly the first to try capturing the elusive inner truth of Nixon.

Bruce Mazlish, a historian at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who published a book in 1972 called “In Search of Nixon: A Psychohistorical Study,” says he wanted to present a portrait of the president that would help readers understand the man’s complex motivations.

“I felt if I stayed true to the material and was aware of any feelings I brought to it, I’d be all right,” he said.

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But movies differ even from something as exotic as “psychohistory.” Like many other directors, Oliver Stone doesn’t stick to the record. Something--art or ego or both--pulls him beyond.

“I think he is staking out his views and putting them in the movie, which is his right,” said Vanocur, who interviewed Stone for a cable TV presentation on Nixon that will be rebroadcast this month. “But is it accurate history? I don’t think so.”


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