“If you prefer facts to fantasy, come to Yorba Linda.”
The words ran in the center of a paid ad in The Times on Dec. 24, under the headline “You Choose” and photographs of Anthony Hopkins as Richard Nixon and of the real-life former president and his wife. The captions, respectively, were “Oliver Stone’s ‘Commercial Fiction’ ” and “Three-Dimensional Reality.”
The purveyor of reality in this case was the Richard Nixon Library & Birthplace, which has been waging a low-profile battle with filmmaker Oliver Stone over his take on the 37th president in “Nixon,” released last month.
Last week, Stone sent a one-page letter to John H. Taylor, director of the library and a critic of “Nixon,” suggesting ways to “bridge the gap that exists between our views, both of the movie and of history.” His ideas were politely dismissed in a written response from Taylor.
The politeness didn’t last for long. Contacted by a reporter about Taylor’s response, Stone spokesman Stephen Rivers called the library a “very Soviet-style version of history,” which prompted Taylor to charge that Stone merely had been seeking free publicity with his letter to the library.
Earlier, on Dec. 19--the day before the movie opened--the library foundation issued a statement from the former president’s family condemning “Nixon” and accusing Stone of “character assassination” and of concocting “imaginary scenes . . . that are calculated solely and maliciously to defame and degrade President and Mrs. Nixon’s memories.”
Stone responded by writing that his purpose “was to attempt a fuller understanding of the life and career of Richard Nixon--the good and the bad, the triumphs and the tragedies and the legacy he left his nation and the world.”
And so on.
“History will treat you far more kindly than your contemporaries,” Paul Sorvino as Henry Kissinger tells Hopkins as the president as he prepares to sign his resignation letter in one of “Nixon’s” final scenes.
“That,” Hopkins replies, “depends on who writes the history books.”
Almost two years after his death, more than two decades after his resignation, the battle to define Richard Milhous Nixon for future generations goes on. The Nixon Library has served as designated keeper of the flame since its opening in 1991; Stone, with his takes on everything from Vietnam to the Doors to the assassination of John F. Kennedy, appears intent on being the popular interpreter of the tumultuous ‘60s and early ‘70s (he reportedly is mulling a film project on Martin Luther King Jr.).
Stone’s “JFK,” with its conjectures on an elaborate assassination conspiracy, provoked heated charges of revisionism and of playing loosely with the facts. “Nixon” hasn’t been a match for “JFK” in the controversy department (or at the box office, for that matter) but has had its share of critics.
Seeing “Nixon,” then visiting the Nixon library, provides (along with a case of historical whiplash) a clear example of how the raw materials of a life can produce wildly diverging interpretations.
But just as certainly as there are profound differences between the library and the film, there are similarities as well. Both use history selectively to advance their views of the man. Both pay tribute, albeit to different degrees, to Nixon’s diplomatic triumphs.
And both, in their separate ways, are sympathetic to their subject, knocks against Stone from Nixon loyalists to the contrary. The filmmaker, reaching for Shakespearean overtones, tracks what he sees as Nixon’s descent into disgrace--seeking to show, in effect, how the man became the monster. It’s just that the library doesn’t see the monster at all.
The differences, for the most part, are not surprising. The library, natch, is free of images of a sloppy-drunk Nixon furtively playing and replaying his secret tapes; the movie skips lightly over the last two decades of Nixon’s life (a time of meticulous image-rebuilding, duly celebrated at the library), reducing it to the barest epilogue.
There are differences in method as well as content. Stone acknowledges that numerous scenes are invented--particularly dialogue between Nixon and wife Pat, for which there is no direct historical record. (It’s a point the library harped on in its ad, quoting Stone himself: “We have created scenes between Pat and Dick which nobody ever, ever witnessed.”)
Such inventions, however, are part of every historical film drama, and are acknowledged in the film’s prologue. Stone--stung, perhaps, by the “JFK” backlash--went to pains this time to document issues of historical substance, going so far as to publish a heavily annotated version of the screenplay he co-wrote with Stephen J. Rivele and Christopher Wilkinson.
The library, for its part, sticks to the documented facts in its displays--although it has been criticized by some for the selective use of those facts. “A lot of blank pages,” as Stone spokesman Rivers said last week.
But the biggest differences of all between the film and the library are in terms of focus. “Nixon” the movie sees itself as a character study--it is a heavily interpretive attempt to bring Nixon the man to life. “Nixon himself said that he had been to the highest peaks and the lowest valleys,” Stone says in an interview published with the screenplay. “That’s great drama.”
Stone’s take often emphasizes Nixon’s worst reported traits, so it is little surprise that the family took offense. The film’s Nixon is paranoid to the point of dementia, self-loathing, and obsessed with self-comparisons to the privileged Kennedys and with his perceived persecution by the press. He is, in Stone’s view, a man crippled by an inability to feel or receive love.
(Stone even puts the words into Kissinger’s mouth, as an aside during Nixon’s Watergate-era “I am not a crook” address: “Can you imagine what this man would have been had he ever been loved?”)
Where the movie wants to reveal the private Nixon, the library is very much focused on the public man. His statesmanship--opening up China, detente with the Soviet Union--are on center stage in Yorba Linda, along with his triumphs along the road of his political rise. And where the movie essentially stops with the resignation, the library trumpets the gradual resurrection of Nixon’s image as elder statesman. The library is, indeed, the capstone of that resurrection.