Film and Media

Nixon and Historical Memory In the Classroom

Ron Briley, March 1996

"Two for Nixon, please!" These are words that I could never envision myself saying during my student years in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Yet self-proclaimed radical filmmaker Oliver Stone induced me not only to utter the phrase, but to pay to see the film as well. Why? What did I expect? A vilification of the man that I and many of my peers once loved to hate? After all, Nixon loyalists, such as Alexander Haig, have described the film as character assassination. Oliver Stone is certainly capable of simplistic characterization, as demonstrated by his hero worship of John Kennedy and Jim Garrison in the film JFK, but what I found in Nixon the film was a complexity that encouraged me to reevaluate the man and perhaps exorcise a few more of those demons from the 1960s.

Before discussing what moved me about Nixon, it is essential to point out what the film is not. As a history teacher, my greatest fear is that filmgoers will perceive Nixon as fact. Instead, this work of art is simply Oliver Stone's interpretation of Richard Nixon and his times. Anyone seeking information on historical record might consult Stephen Ambrose's three-volume biography of the president or the work of Joan Hoff. It is worth remembering that we do not study the plays of William Shakespeare for their historical accuracy.

Unfortunately, many people do tend to view what they see on film as a factual representation of reality. For instance, despite Stone's assertion that JFK represented a counter myth to the findings of the Warren Commission, I was disturbed that so many students, as well as other viewers, perceived the film as the true story of the Kennedy assassination. While the historical documentation remains incomplete, evidence suggesting that John Kennedy was murdered by a conspiracy involving organized crime, defense contractors, the military, the FBI, and the CIA, because the young president was challenging the establishment on Vietnam and the Cold War, is primarily conjecture. The idea that the Warren Commission was somewhat sloppy and rushed to judgment in order to reassure a nervous nation simply does not coincide with Stone's screen interpretation of the turbulent 1960s.

Through his film work, Stone has positioned himself as one of the most popular historians of that era. In films such as Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July, Heaven and Earth, The Doors, El Salvador, JFK, and Nixon, Stone presents an interpretation of contemporary politics, war, diplomacy, and popular culture far more influential than accounts based on primary documents and the work of professional historians, which reach a much smaller audience. How is the historical profession to counter the appeal of film and its influence on public consciousness? Rather than curse the darkness and wish that film and directors like Oliver Stone would go away, a more fruitful response is to incorporate historical analysis of popular film into the academic canon. (Many historians are beginning to pursue this approach as witnessed by the growing attention paid to film in such scholarly journals as the American Historical Review and the Journal of American History.)

In a course entitled Contemporary American History through Film, I have used Hollywood cinema as a source through which to investigate the formation of American values and ideology in the post-World War II period. I encourage students to examine gender, class, race, and personal narrative in films to gauge the ideological perspective of a filmmaker. I also ask them to compare film interpretations of events with the written record. Just as it is crucial to teach critical thinking skills when dealing with the written word, the study of film requires that students be equipped with intellectual tools of analysis so that they do not simply accept as fact what is presented on the screen.

In addition to contrasting film interpretations with written records, it is imperative that students be introduced to film techniques of manipulation. In analyzing JFK, a class should discuss how Stone attempts to persuade the audience to accept his interpretation of events by using cinematic devices, such as flashbacks and composite characters; by alternating between staged sequences and actual documentary footage; and by filming scenes in black and white to make them appear to be documentary film stock. In Nixon when Stone uses shots of the iron gates in front of the White House to establish the mood of isolation so well developed by Orson Welles in Citizen Kane, he is relying on cinematic technique. He uses such devices throughout the film. For instance, in the opening scene of Nixon, Stone reveals the importance of Nixon's recording of White House conversations. It is essential that viewers recognize that Stone stages crucial conversations regarding the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy outside the White House, where they could not have been taped.

Thus, it is necessary that we as historians learn the language of film so that we may impart to our students (and, it is hoped, to the general public) the means by which to critically examine the power of film. In the case of Nixon, it is important that viewers question the note of conspiracy that most distracts from the film. Stone's obsession with conspiracy has Nixon meeting with a group of Texas businessmen (one of whom is played by Larry Hagman, reprising his Dallas role of Texas oil man J. R. Ewing) who hint that John Kennedy will not live to run for a second term. In addition, Stone has J. Edgar Hoover informing presidential candidate Nixon in 1968 that Robert Kennedy will not be around to receive the nomination of the Democratic Party. Similarly, Stone suggests that the infamous 18-minute gap in the Watergate tapes has something to do with the Bay of Pigs invasion, and by implication the murder of John Kennedy. At times, Nixon appears to be the only person in the film who was somehow not directly involved in the plot to assassinate President Kennedy. In fact, Stone goes so far as to perceive Nixon as a pawn or victim of the powerful, secretive military-industrial complex that controls America. Why is Stone so obsessed with conspiracy?

As documented by Richard Hofstadter in his classic study The Paranoid Style in American Politics, Americans have long been enamored by notions of conspiracy, from the Masons to contemporary militia groups. So perhaps Stone's fascination with conspiracies makes him somewhat of a traditionalist. As for the 1960s generation, of which both Stone and I are a product, our eyes were opened to hypocrisy in America with the civil rights movement, and this disillusionment was confirmed by the tragic abuses of power exemplified in Vietnam and Watergate. Stone served in Vietnam, and I lost friends in the war. It is often easier to believe that we were the victims of sinister forces rather than the pawns of mistakes, misjudgments, and arrogance by American leaders. Conspiracy tends to ennoble, while stupidity belittles our sacrifices.

Oliver Stone undermines his conspiracy theory in Nixon, however, in providing Richard Nixon with a human face and soul. I did not find the character assassination alluded to by Haig in the brilliant performance of Anthony Hopkins, which incorporates the classic Nixon gestures of the hunched shoulders and the arms raised in a victory sign, but which does not include a make-up job to make the actor look like Nixon. Supporters of the former president tend to forget the amount of venom he inspired among his opponents. During the scenes in which Nixon calls protesters bums, amid the controversy surrounding the invasion of Cambodia and the shootings at Kent State, I experienced some of the old anger boiling to the surface. However, in the hands of Stone and Hopkins, Nixon emerges not as the impersonal embodiment of an evil system supporting war and racism, but rather as an individual with the human insecurities regarding love, family, and socioeconomic background that we all share. Beneath the confident gestures of victory, we glimpse the doubts and multifaceted personality of a man who was socially awkward and who always considered himself an outsider, whether on the athletic field or in high society. Much of this psychological profile has been pointed out by such Nixon biographers as Fawn Brodie and Tom Wicker, but film is a powerful medium. Rather than an intellectual abstraction, the Nixon of Stone and Hopkins becomes the tragic figure from a Shakespeare play, and, to use a contemporary cliche, I was able to "feel his pain."

At the conclusion of the film, I actually had tears in my eyes for the poor Quaker youth from Whittier, who heard the whistle of a passing train and wondered where that train might take him and whether he would ever find personal peace. In making my peace with the ghost of Richard Nixon, I had to remind myself that there was much more to the Nixon record than ending the Vietnam War, detente with China and the Soviet Union, and an obstruction of justice. Ignored in the film are the domestic policies of Nixon (more liberal than many may remember), the Kissinger-Nixon foreign policy that supported counterinsurgency and dictators in efforts to head off communism and national liberation (with the exception of one reference to Allende in Chile), and the very real constitutional questions raised by the Watergate crisis.

The historical record remains complex, and Stone's conspiracy theories are distracting, but the film embodiment of Richard Nixon provides a common humanity that helped rid me of some bitterness left from the 1960s. While film as a source of historical truth is to be viewed with skepticism, in the hands of a talented artist, such as Stone, cinema has an immense impact upon memory, perception, and emotion—the essential ingredients of history and the human experience. Let us hope that the divisiveness of the past will be remembered as we debate the cultural wars of the 1990s. Like Richard Milhouse Nixon, our political opponents have a human face and dimension.

—Ron Briley is a history teacher and assistant headmaster with Sandia Preparatory School in Albuquerque, New Mexico. For the past 10 years he has taught a senior elective course entitled Contemporary American History through Film. His work on cinema has appeared in The History Teacher, the OAH Magazine of History, and Literature/Film Quarterly.