Hollywood's Most Controversial Director Oliver Stone Takes On Our Most Controversial President Richard Nixon

The fall of Richard Milhous Nixon has begun. Watergate has exploded. John Dean is testifying before a Senate committee. Haldeman and Ehrlichmanm, his closest aides, have been ordered to resign and White House aide Alexander Butterfield has just revealed the existence of secret tapes. And now we see Nixon for the first time. It's late at night in a deserted White House, and there he is, sitting like a trapped animal in a corner of the Lincoln Sitting Room, a tumbler of Scotch by his side. The 5 o'clock shadow. The sweaty upper lip. The face ashen from lack of sleep. He gulps hi drink and fumbles with the tapes Alexander Haig presents him, a man on unfamiliar terms with his own body. "Nixon's never been good with these things," he tells Haig, as if he were talking about another man -- a president. And then he launches into a rant of self-justification, equal parts rage and self-pity. "We never got our side of the story out, Al. People've forgotten. I mean: 'F--k you, Mr. President, f--k you, Tricia, f--k you, Julie!' . . . The tear-gassing, the riots, burning the draft cards, Balck Panthers -- we fixed it, Al, and they hate me for it -- the double-dealing bastards. They lionize that traitor Ellsberg for stealing secrets, but they jump all over me 'cause it's Nixon . . . They've always hated Nixon."

The question is, how will we feel about the man after seeing "Nixon," a 3 1/4-hour epic biography of our most controversial, even despised, president--made by our most controversial (and, in some quarters, despised) filmmaker, Oliver Stone? It's a combustible combination. "You say Nixon and Oliver Stone in the same breath and people expect to go to a crucifixion," says Bill Brown, Stone's post-production assistant.

There were good reasons to have trepidations. This, after all, is the man who in "JFK" perpetrated a wild and, to most historians, dangerously woolly conspiracy theory about the Kennedy assassination. Could we trust history from the man who transformed the dubious Jim Garrison into a Capraesque hero? Who, in "The Doors," located the soul of the '60s in the marginally talented Jim Morrison? Would he turn the Nixon saga into a "Natural Born Killers" orgy of expressionistic excess? Deep within Stone is a Manichaean mind-set that has always needed to divide the world into good guys and villains. It's there in the allegorical standoff between Willem Dafoe and Tom Berenger in "Platoon"; in his demonization of Clay Shaw in "JFK." If he was willing to idealize Kennedy as the pure, shining hope of recent American history,wouldn't it be inevitable that Nixon, his bitter foe, must emerge in Stone's Hollywood dialectic as the Prince of Darkness?

Prepare for a surprise. On the verge of 50, Oliver Stone has discovered complexity, ambiguity and even a measure of restraint. He is still a filmmaker who paints in broad and forceful strokes, but in "Nixon" he puts his considerable talents in the service of a character study of our 37th president that aims for, and often achieves, the dimensions of classical tragedy. This is no whitewash of Nixon. He's there, played by Anthony Hopkins, with all his malevolence, his paranoia and his ruthlessness intact. His loyalists and his family won't like this portrait. But his bitterest enemies may not like it, either, for it forces the viewer to acknowledge the twisted humanity of the man. Stone's Nixon is appalling and strangely moving, a man whose private and public demons bring him down with an almost Shakespearean thud.

This "Nixon" effectively undermines the work Nixon himself accomplished during his long last years, during which he successfully set about rehabilitating his image. The dignified elder statesman eulogized so fulsomely at his funeral in Yorba Linda, Calif., does not figure in Stone's picture. Reopening old wounds, we're forced to confront the man who did more than anyone to undermine the nation's respect for the presidential of-rice. What's going to startle audiences is the intimacy of the gaze: the vivid theatricality of the scenes puts us literally cheek by jowl with the man, eavesdropping on his bedroom conversations with Pat, watching him crumble in the face of her threat of divorce. It's a strange sensation getting this up-close and personal with our most deeply impersonal president. It is one kind of shock to read about Nixon's desperate behavior in "The Final Days"; it's another to actually see him burst into sobs next to Henry Kissinger when he resigned, praying on the Lincoln Sitting Room floor. History and voyeurism collide in a powerfully unsettling way. That, more than anything else, is what's going to prove controversial about this movie, not the red herring of whether Stone has monkeyed with the facts.

"Nixon" begins with the Watergate plumbers and ends with the president's resignation. But it swings with brilliant audacity back and forth in time, searching in Nixon's Whittier, Calif., childhood and the broad sweep of his political career for clues to the paradoxical nature of his tenacious ambition and self-destructive flaws.

A key building block in Stone's psychological profile is Nixon's well-documented obsession with Jack and Bobby Kennedy, whose charisma and silver-spoon success stirred up his most dangerous insecurities, his outsider's paranoia about the Eastern establishment. Then, with savage irony, their deaths pave the way for his successful 1968 campaign. Near the end of the movie, his presidency in ruins, a haggard, beaten Nixon stands before a looming oil portrait of John E Kennedy. It's the JFK of Camelot: at ease, upper-class handsome. Looking up at his old foe, Stone's defeated Nixon has his epiphany about the American people who seem so eager to east him aside: "When they look at you, they see what they want to be. When they look at me, they see what they are."

Stone's screenplay, written with Stephen J. Rivele and Christopher Wilkinson, draws a link between Nixon's Kennedy fixation and his own tragic family dynamic. It was the early deaths of two brothers, 7-year-old Arthur and the Kennedyesque Harold, who died of TB at 28, that allowed Richard's parents to invest their meager savings, and their hopes, in the education of the future president.

The Nixon of the final days is haunted by the fact that death has purchased his rise to power Remembering the sight of Bobby's fallen body on the floor of the Ambassador Hotel, he tells Haldeman (James Woods) that at that moment "I knew I'd be president. Death paved the way, didn't it? Vietnam. The Kennedys. It cleared a path through the wilderness for me. Over the bodies. Four bodies . . ."

These scenes are obviously a dramatist's invention, but like most of "Nixon," they emerge from well-documented research. Perhaps stung by the criticisms of "JFK," Stone seldom wanders into pure fabrication. There's an encounter on a Washington bridge between John Dean (David Hyde Pierce) and the plumber E. Howard Hunt (Ed Harris), who's blackmailing the White House, that never took place. (Stone justifies it by saying it's a scene Nixon would have imagined happening.) There is a gaggle of rich, sinister, right-wing zealots gathered on a ranch in Texas, who seem to have wandered in off the set of "JFK," hinting darkly of Stone's signature conspiracies. ("Old habits die hard," laments "Nixon" production designer Victor Kempster, a veteran of four Stone films.) Most controversial will be Stone's theory of Nixon's involvement in the plot to assassinate Castro (page 68).

But none of these speculations is crucial to the film's power. Stone is smart enough to know that with this story the facts are melodramatic enough without a Hollywood assist. What writer could have imagined Nixon's bizarre impromptu encounter session with young antiwar protesters at the Lincoln Memorial? Who could have invented his persecution of suspected spy Alger Hiss? The Checkers speech. His infamous "You won't have Nixon to kick around anymore" concession speech when he lost the California governor's race in 1962. The cloak-and-dagger fiascoes of the Watergate cover-up. It's all here, with cameo appearances by everyone from Martha Mitchell (Madeline Kahn) to J. Edgar Hoover (Bob Hoskins).

Stone seems intent on colonizing our memories of the '60s and '70s in America. 'For better or worse, his vision of Vietnam in "Platoon" and "Born on the Fourth of July"--as a battlefield where American innocence was led to the slaughterhouse--re-shaped our vision of the war and our attitude about its vets. If Stone were a less powerful filmmaker, he'd be less hated: the visceral impact of "JFK" so effortlessly overrides doubt that his myths lodge like stones of truth in the popular imagination, resetting the terms of the debate. Stone looms so large on the pop-cultural landscape in part because he's filling a vacuum: when Hollywood pretends to be political, it's more likely to offer the fluffy liberal pipe dreams of"The American President" or the cheerleader's notion of history served up in "Apollo 13." Next to the polite do-goodism of most social-issue filmmakers, Stone's nearly messianic passion is singularly compelling.

But the Stone who made "Nixon" is no demagogue. The propagandist has been replaced by a bold portraitist. And ultimately the ambitious edifice of "Nixon" rests on the shoulders of the model who sits in for Nixon--the actor. It is the emotional coloration of Anthony Hopkins, not Richard Nixon, that we carry away. The Welsh actor would hardly seem the choice to play the jowly, ski-slope-nosed Quaker from whittier He doesn't look like him, he isn't built like him, he doesn't sound like him. But once the initial period of adjustment is overcome, Hopkins is Nixon. It's not imitation, it's alchemy. Hopkins grants us access to Nixon's wounded soul, in a way that probably the real man never could. He captures the physical awkwardness, the staccato rages, the chilling emotional repression and bad-sales-man's bluster. It's a daredevil performance that at times teeters on the edge of buffoonery without ever falling over. As the real John Dean observes: "Nixon is a colder personality, much colder. And Hopkins humanizes him by being Tony Hopkins, who is not a cold person." It's Hopkins who sets the movie's emotional body temperature.

And it's Joan Allen's taut and uncanny Pat Nixon who partners him in some of the movie's finest scenes. The object of much scorn during her lifetime-she was Plastic Pat, the definition of uptight--the long-suffering wife gets her due in Allen's movingly brittle performance, which even seems to capture the exact tension of her neck muscles as she sits, with strained composure, listening to her husband's shameless Checkers speech.

The bench of acting talent here is broad and deep. Paul Sorvino's Machiavellian, publicity-hungry Kissinger will be the subject of much amusement in Washington power circles. He's the one actor to attempt an impersonation, and he gets the sepulchral Germanic rumble of the man to a T. The ferocity of Woods's rabidly loyal Haldeman plays off J. T. Walsh's softer, more subdued Ehrlichman, who surprisingly comes across as the moral conscience of the president's inner circle-a choice Stone says he made more for dramatic balance than out of historical research. (Or was it because Ehrlichman threatened to sue?) Hyde Pierce, from television's "Frasier," is dead-on as the natty John Dean, wriggling out of his role as the Watergate scapegoat-of-choice; and Mary Steenburgen is Nixon's sainted mother, who even appears -- confirming the tragedy's Shakespearean ambitions-as an apparition to Nixon at the height of his impeachment-induced derangement.

Though Stone grew up a young Republican who early on supported Nixon, he turned violently against him after he served in Vietnam, never forgiving Nixon for prolonging and expanding the fighting. "Nixon" represents his emotional detente, a hard-won effort to discover compassion for the enemy. It's not a movie that's going to change anyone's politics, right or left, but it comes at an interesting moment in our national temper. In the Washington of Clinton and Gingrich, Dole and Buchanan, gearing up for a campaign mud bath, the demonization of one's political foes has reached an epic frenzy. The tragic intimacy of "Nixon" suggests a deeper, more humane way of regarding our leaders. Who would have thought Oliver Stone's "Nixon" would end up a healing gesture?

A year ago, over the Thanksgiving holidays, the legendary director Billy Wilder encountered Stone at a dinner and asked him what his next project was going to be. When told, the owlish veteran frowned. "Oliver, please," he teased. "Nixon. Nixon. Nobody likes Nixon. Why would you do Nixon?" It was a skepticism shared by many in Hollywood. Indeed, "Nixon" almost didn't get made.

Stone had been developing two other projects that ultimately collapsed--the musical "Evita" and a movie about Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega. On the back burner he was developing a Nixon project with the writing team of Rivele and Wilkinson. The turning point came with Nixon's death in April 1994: suddenly he knew this would be his top priority. At his Telluride, Colo., home, Stone immersed himself in research, with the help of Eric Hamburg, a former Washington congressional aide. Hamburg's office overflowed with Nixoniana, from wacko tracts like Len Colodny and Robert Gettlin's "Silent Coup: The Removal of a President" (which postulates that the search for a call-girl ring brought down the Nixon presidency) to a slew of reputable histories.

And Stone sought out the real characters who would people his movie. Last March he flew to Washington with Hamburg, Hopkins and Woods to talk to power brokers who knew Nixon--from lawyer Leonard Garment to Elliot Richardson and Robert McNamara. (Richardson, who resigned as Nixon's attorney general in the infamous "Saturday Night Massacre," told Stone that Nixon "had greatness within his grasp, but he had the defects of his qualities"--a lovely line given to Kissinger in the film.) Alexander Butterfield and John Dean were hired by Stone to fact-check Nixon's mannerisms and White House arcana. (Both make cameo appearances in the film.) But some public figures were worried about how they would appear. Former CIA director Richard Helms had a lawyer .write Stone. Though scenes with Helms, as played by Sam Waterston, were filmed, none made the final cut. Stone insists it's because the film was too long.

Getting it financed, however, proved daunting. Warner Bros., which released Stone's last three movies, "saw it," said Stone, "as a bunch of unattractive older white men sitting around in suits, with a lot of dialogue and not enough action." Nor were they ecstatic about a Welshman playing an American president. For obvious reasons, they would have preferred the other two names on Stone's original list--Tom Hanks and Jack Nicholson. (Try running those versions through your mind.)

It was seeing Hopkins in "The Remains of the Day" and "Shadowlands" that intrigued Stone. "The isolation of Tony is what struck me. The loneliness. I felt that was the quality that always marked Nixon. He played repression perfectly in 'Remains of the Day,' and there was a lot of Nixon in that, too."

Stone was still looking for money a week before shooting was to begin, when he cut a deal with Andrew Vajna's Cinergi and Disney's Hollywood Pictures to supply the $48 million budget (about the average cost of a big studio film these days). One way Stone saved money was to lease the sets of the White House from "The American President," though they were modified to bring them down to real scale.

Several of the actors spoke with the men they were playing. Alexander Haig was "charming, with a great sense of humor," says Powers Boothe. "Of the eight presidents he had served, he said Nixon was by far the brightest." Hyde Pierce was in the awkward position of playing a man, John Dean, who was often on the set. "Oliver very thoughtfully didn't have John around when I was shooting the major scenes. That would have been tremendously intimidating. Dean never gave me a review. He did tell me once that the knot in my tie was a bit too large. When they'd asked Dean who he wanted to play him, he said Kevin Costner."

Sorvino tried out his accent on Kissinger. "I did the voice for him and he said, 'You're good'." J. T. Walsh decided not to contact Ehrlichman. "He was a little testy, and he was threat-erring to sue." Ehrlichman had seen an early version of the script, and wasn't happy. "Twenty-five pages were boot-legged to me," he explains. "I thought it was awful. It put my character into plot situations that never occurred-and very much to my disadvantage." When told that in the film he emerges as the' conscience. of the White House, Ehrlichman was surprised-that wasn't in the script he'd read.

Haldeman's no longer alive, but Woods did some historical eavesdropping. "We had access to the real tapes that weren't even available to the public, I won't tell you how, and when you hear Haldeman commiserating in the demise of trusted friends, the coldbloodedness reminds you of those gangster movies where the Mafia kingpins sit around and discuss the impending demise of the archenemy."

Hopkins endured a tumultuous drama of his own during the making of "Nixon." The part was huge--"This is more lines than 'King Lear'," he wafted to Stone--and the burden of playing an American president whose mannerisms were known to all weighed heavily on him. From day one he harbored a fear that he couldn't pull it off. Stone recalls an elevator ride on the way to lunch with Hopkins and Sorvino, a wicked vocal mimic. "How am I doing?" Hopkins asks Sorvino. "Not well." "What do you mean?" " Uh, it's your accent," Sorvino says. "You're doing it all wrong. This is the way you should be doing Nixon." And Sorvino launches into an operatic Nixon routine. "By the end of the lunch," Stone says, "Tony's practically sweating bullets. He's thinking about the first plane back to London. Comes back up here. 'Oliver, I can't go on. I'm sorry, I have to leave'." Now Stone is sweating bullets, envisioning his $48 million production going up in smoke. Stone sits his demoralized star down for a pep talk. "This is like the infantry. You don't look at the whole picture. It looks like too much. Get through that line. You slog it out, and then you get confidence."

Hopkins stayed, ultimately settling inside Nixon's skin. His method is fanatical. "I brainwash myself with a scene," Hopkins explains, going through each one 200 times. By the last day of shooting-on a boat off Long Beach, Calif.--Hopkins was in a jesting mood. As some of his colleagues took a water taxi back to shore, he rushed to the railing and cried in mock agony, "Help me! Get me off this f---ing movie!"

But he had one more scene to perform for Stone, one that would tell a lot about Stone's approach to his incendiary material. The scene was a macho dinner for NIXon's inner circle on the presidential yacht; the menu was New York strip steak and red wine. Nixon and his men--Haldeman, Ehrlichman, Ron Ziegler, Kissinger and Mitchell--are discussing the rioting at Kent State that followed the invasion of Cambodia. "Dead kids! How the hell did we ever give the Democrats a weapon like this?"

But Nixon hangs tough. "I mean, ff Cambodia doesn't work, we'll bomb Hanoi if we have to." Nixon looks down at his steak. It is oozing blood. "Goddamn it! Who the hell cooked this steak?" Then, to his valet: "Manolo, there's blood all over my plate." He throws down his knife and fork and backs away, tossing his napkin into a growing pool of blood.

Stone shot the ending to the scene a half-dozen times on that cool night in July. The director of "Natural Born Killers" had to decide how hard to hit the emblematic blood. He tried a broad spectrum of sanguinary possibilities: from a dainty dribble to over-the-top, with blood splattering from plate to tablecloth in symbolic condemnation of Nixon's Vietnam excesses. "Pour it on!" the director exclaimed. But when he made his final cut, four months later, he went for restraint: blood oozes noticeably but not egregiously onto the presidential china.

Has our most Outrageous cinematic provocateur really calmed down? Robert Richardson, his gifted cinematographer, thinks so: "Oliver is moving toward something that is more at peace." Perhaps. Or maybe it just depends on his mood. Another day on the set he was his old feisty self, railing about the popular "Apollo 13." "An homage to bull--patriotism," he muttered. "The f---ing critics, they all loved it. I can't make movies anymore, I guess."

Beleaguered, defensive, put-upon, here was one of the most successful and acclaimed directors in Hollywood casting himself in the role of endangered outsider. And sounding perilously like the man he was making a movie about. You won't have Stone to kick around anymore. And maybe, finally, that's why "Nixon" is as strong and surprising and empathetic as it is, because Stone has made the imaginative leap any true artist must: he's seen himself in Nixon.

Hollywood's Most Controversial Director Oliver Stone Takes On Our Most Controversial President Richard Nixon | News