I was nine when Richard Nixon died. His death is stuck in that weird category of things that the young me was only dimly aware of happening – the Berlin Wall coming down or the entirety of the Gulf War – and found far less important than watching Jaws for the 3,000th time. I was more aware, however, of Nixon the character: an unholy mix of mad bomber, sweaty shiftiness and crook-in-chief.
Cut to a few years and a few history lessons later, and I'd recorded Oliver Stone's little-loved and hugely underrated Nixon onto VHS. This was around the millennium, and there was little to do in rural Northern Ireland other than protesting Drumcree or marvelling at the recent arrival of Tesco to our shores. I was watching a lot of movies.
Expecting a mix of Triumph of the Will and the West Wing, I sat down to watch an indictment of the butcher of Cambodia, the man who escalated the 20th century's longest war and who turned the Oval Office into a well-upholstered version of Satriale's from The Sopranos. Instead, I got a brutally moving and upsetting look at a man who had greatness in him, but threw himself on the fire almost willingly, and nearly pulled his kingdom down with him.
Anthony Hopkins, despite looking nothing like him, inhabited Nixon's slimy twitchiness, his bitterness at an American establishment he felt rejected by; and yes, the drinking, ranting and casual anti-Semitism. So why was I in floods of tears? I was crying for one of American history's monsters, a byword for corruption and brutish pragmatism, and what's worse, I could see myself in him.
This pathetic man, reduced at the end of the film from shooting the shit with Chairman Mao to weepily forcing Henry Kissinger to pray with him, was somehow relatable to a chubby 15-year-old who could hear Orange bands practising from his bedroom. Despite what my enemies may tell you, I have never instigated any bombing campaigns, or bugged my rivals, or brought the world's greatest democracy to political disaster, and yet was feeling sympathy for the devil onscreen.
Movies function as empathy machines – the idea is that we transfer ourselves onto the protagonist, triumphing and failing alongside them. That's why we get so many wish-fulfilment fantasies where unassuming teenage boys are whisked to lives of adventure by being bitten by a spider or being the chosen one in some nebulous prophecy. Your life may be shit now, these films say, but just wait until you're plunged into the life of enjoyable jeopardy where your hidden potential and dauntless virtue are revealed. You put yourself into Harry/Luke/Frodo's shoes, face their tests with them and walk out the cinema feeling pretty good about yourself.
Nixon isn't targeting that market, sure (and whatever market it did target, it flopped hard), but it's got bigger things on its mind. Oliver Stone isn't a director to think small – Nixon came after a run of films where he'd completed the definitive trilogy on the American experience in Vietnam, made a prescient and hilarious satire on the ethical void of modern media and suggested the Kennedy assassination was essentially a palace coup (which is bollocks, by the way).
He's got bigger things on his mind in Nixon than mere politics, though. He created an honest-to-God modern tragedy, and he used the bogeyman of his entire generation to do it. It's worth thinking about what a tragedy actually is. If you want to get into Aristotle – and why not? – it's the destruction of a great individual, brought about by a fatal flaw. There's a moment of tragic realisation, and it all comes cathartically crashing down, evoking what the guy in the toga called "pity and terror" in the audience.
There's a key moment in Stone's film, however, where Nixon – drunk on whiskey and self-pity – is wandering the White House after dark. He stumbles across the famous portrait of Kennedy – colours muted, head bowed, the noble martyr. "When they look at you," movie Nixon says, "they see what they want to be. When they look at me, they see what they are."
On the nose? Sure. But Stone is as much commenting on the audience's relationship to movie Nixon as he is having movie Nixon commenting on the American public's relationship to these two wildly different men.
This is all a far cry from the uplifting moment when you project yourself onto Neo or Star Lord, or whoever, and destroy Voldemort or the Death Star. That I feel pity and terror at the downfall of a man who had greatness in his grasp? That's what makes Nixon the man so interesting. He's the ultimate mixed bag. He prolonged the Vietnam war, happily let the North Vietnamese think he would nuke them, bombed the shit out of half of South East Asia, instigated a bloody coup in Chile, ruthlessly exploited anti-Communist hysteria early in his career and, of course, covered up his minions' pretty skeezy take on politics, bugging, burglaries and all.
That said, he made the first real progress on nuclear conciliation with the Soviets, brought Communist China in from the cold and was progressive on women, race (ish) and the environment. He's even been called the Lincoln of Native Americans. In a post-neo con world, he really doesn't seem that bad. But that's just a run through his CV – what about going deeper?
Movie Nixon takes some liberties, but a direct line is drawn between his misdeeds and a psyche that was troubled even by the standards of the weirdos who want to enter politics. He's haunted by how it took a parade of deaths to get him to the White House, be it the Kennedy brothers, or his own brother, dead as a young man from TB.
His religious nutjob parents did quite the job on him, too, instilling a fanatical appetite for work – a refusal to quit no matter what the punishment – but also a deep, deep sense of inadequacy. However much his haters may have hated, it's pretty sure that nobody hated Nixon more than himself. "Can you imagine what this man would be like," says Kissinger in the film, "had anybody loved him?"
But why did Nixon reach out through the screen? I didn't see myself in Oedipus or Macbeth or any of the other tragic heroes we had to study in school. But movie Nixon? He pushed my buttons. He comes across as the loneliest man in the world, besieged in the White House and isolated. He may be a beast, but he's a caged beast, and it's hard not to feel sympathy for anything in a cage. Growing up isolated in the Irish countryside and waiting for life to begin, I could relate.
We like to think we're all Kennedies, playing football on Cape Cod and sneaking off to have sex with Marilyn Monroe, but the truth is, in all our imperfections, there's more of Nixon to us all than the idealised Kennedy of Camelot. Nixon knows his flaws, and embraces them even as they destroy him. Everyone is flawed, everyone is struggling, and rare is the man who doesn't want to be better – but most of us fail. We may not all have greatness inside us – I'm not sure 30-year-old me does, let alone 15-year-old me – but we like to trick ourselves anyway.
Nixon was a brute, sure, and a crook, and has a huge amount to answer to – but watching a film placing all his flaws up there on the screen showed me I wasn't alone in my own imperfections. And if we can have sympathy for this man, if we can find the humanity amid all the brutality and atrocities, maybe we can have a little more sympathy for each other, too.
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