Oliver Stone is a brilliant filmmaker from a technical point of view. Visually, "Nixon" is always stunning and never boring, even with a three-hour run time. He attempts to make new film footage look 40, 50, or even 60 years old at various points in the movie, and he succeeds. And that's not easy. Many directors try it and fail. Stone goes the extra mile to make a movie LOOK convincing, and he deserves points for that. And of course, the acting is spectacular. Anthony Hopkins is one of the finest actors of our time, and he does a spectacular job playing Nixon. Joan Allen IS Pat Nixon. J.T. Walsh, James Woods, Bob Hoskins, Powers Boothe, Mary Steenburgen, and the other actors are fantastic, as you would expect. The problem? As usual, Stone doesn't let the facts get in the way of his story. There are just too many moments in this movie that don't ring true, either because they PROBABLY didn't happen, or because we KNOW they didn't happen. Let's not even go into Stone's usual conspiratorial claptrap. In Stone's world, everyone from the CIA to Howdy Doody was mixed up in the Kennedy assassination. Suffice it to say we get a healthy dose of this nonsense in "Nixon", all of it unsupported by anything remotely resembling evidence. But since I knew this was an Oliver Stone movie, I knew going in that I was going to have to tolerate his usual shtick. But there OTHER things -- other points of history -- that are a little off. First, the movie claims Nixon entered the 1968 presidential contest only after LBJ's withdrawal in March of that year. Ridiculous. Nixon had been running for some time by that point. In fact, Nixon planned to run in '68 as early as '64. He even thought of running in '64, but concluded that LBJ was unbeatable. He campaigned hard for Republicans in the midterm election of '66, stored up a lot of favors, and used those favors when he ran in '68. In fact, by the time LBJ withdrew in late March, the New Hampshire primary had already taken place. And Nixon won it. So there's no way he could have entered the race AFTER LBJ withdrew. Next, the movie implies that Robert Kennedy was well on his way to winning the Democratic nomination in '68, but his assassination stopped it. (And of course, Stone implies that the Great Conspiracy Machine caused RFK's death.) Most political observers at the time believed that Vice President Hubert Humphrey was the likely Democratic nominee, even without RFK's assassination. In the last edition BEFORE the shooting, U.S. News & World Report predicted Humphrey's nomination. The reason? Delegates. In those days, there were fewer primaries, and they had a smaller impact. Most convention delegates were chosen by other means: state conventions, caucuses, etc. Labor unions, Democratic officeholders, and party regulars really controlled the nomination process, and those people preferred Humphrey. Even Ted Sorensen, an aide to RFK in '68, admits that Kennedy just wouldn't have had the delegates to win the nomination.
(While we're on the subject of the 1968 campaign, I'm a little disappointed that Stone didn't devote more time to the Nixon-Humphrey-Wallace contest of the fall. It really is one of the most interesting elections in American history, given the closeness of the race, the issues at stake, and the personalities of the three men. What's more, it was a race in which Nixon saw a 15-point lead evaporate in six weeks, and a race in which Nixon's questionable dealings with the South Vietnamese may have altered the peace process, thus preventing Humphrey from winning. There could have been a Nixon scandal of Watergate proportions EVEN BEFORE Nixon was president.) Next, the movie claims Nixon refused to contest the close 1960 election between Nixon and Kennedy. That's debatable. According to a recent Newsweek, printed after the close Bush-Gore election, Nixon actually did contest the results in ten close states. The recounts lasted into December, but did not change the outcome anywhere. There are other things, but given this limited space, I won't go into them. But there's something about this movie that disturbed me more than any single factual error. Simply put, I'm leery of any movie that puts fictional dialogue into real people's mouths. There are scenes with Richard and Pat Nixon alone together, talking about their marriage and their feelings for one another. I'm not comfortable SPECULATING about what they MIGHT have said. We'll never know. Pat Nixon said some hurtful things to her husband in this movie. How do we know she ever really did that? I'm not a fan of the real Nixon. He did things in his political career that hurt a lot of people. He questioned the loyalty of a lot of good people -- Truman, Stevenson, Acheson, etc. He was only slightly more subtle than Joe McCarthy. His dirty tricks were an insult to every American voter. He got what he deserved in 1974. But even Nixon doesn't deserve the portrait of him painted by Oliver Stone. In this movie, he does things he didn't do in real life and says things he never really said. Stone plays too fast and loose with the facts to be taken seriously as a historian. It's a shame, because the man is a brilliant moviemaker. It's the content that bothers me.
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