Richard Nixon was never one of my favorite people, but after reading Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland in May and James Rosen’s The Strong Man in June, and seeing the ad guys on Mad Men work on Nixon’s 1960 presidential campaign in July, his malignant spirit has been hovering over my summer. Last night, on the eve of the 34th anniversary of Nixon’s resignation speech, I went to a special screening of the 1995 film Nixon at the Jacob Burns Film Center in Pleasantville NY, hosted by the film’s director, Oliver Stone. It was interesting to see the film for the first time in more than a decade. Anthony Hopkins, who does not resemble Nixon either in appearance or sound, does a brilliant job of bringing this dark, unloved, tragic individual—damaged and damaging—to life. (“Tony played him like a grotesquerie, a Nosferatu,’’ said Stone last night.) Like many of Stone’s films, Nixon is challenging—long, forceful, emphatic, but ultimately a provocative view of a man who comes to recognize that the great political machine is a beast that he cannot control, and that is devouring him.
Responding to questions from Janet Maslin of The New York Times and from the audience, Stone was endlessly interesting. The film, he said, was one of his greatest disappointments. “I was a victim of story. Nixon was a great character with a great story, a bookend to Kennedy. They came to Congress together from very different routes, but shared a strange destiny, and were both ultimately destroyed.’’ However, Stone now believes that 1995 was an unfortunate time to have made the film–“we were tired of Nixon’’—and believes that if the film had come out in 2006 “with all its parallels’’ to our current political predicament that it would have done much better. He says that it’s interesting to see Nixon now. “We view him in a different context. He seems almost harmless compared to the current administration.’’
Speaking of which, Stone is hard at work on his new feature, W., in hopes of releasing it before the election. Why return to the subject of the presidency? “George W. Bush is a different soufflé,’’ said Stone. “The film will be more fun. Bush is dangerous, but he is also goofy, awkward and endearing. A lot of people still like him.’’ Presented with ultimate question—which man would he prefer be on a long car with—Stone unhesitatingly chose Nixon over Bush. `He was more intelligent. Bush has done outrageous things, and he has no guilt. He is a backslapper and a salesman. He’s not very deep.’’ Stone says both Nixon and W. ask the same question: “Why do we keep going to war? Why do we keep creating enemies? Bush is the latest and perhaps the most dangerous manifestation. Vietnam was a nightmare. It’s amazing that the same characters have returned and sold us another war.’’