The Many Richard Nixons of Cinema

By  · Published on September 3rd, 2013

Amongst all the star cameos in Lee Daniels’s late-summer hit The Butler, one performance stands out as a particularly curious bit of stunt casting. John Cusack, with nary any make-up, a slight gruff in his voice, carrying that aura of meandering disinterest and slight condescension he’s fine-tuned for nearly a decade struts onto the screen as none other than Richard Milhous Nixon.

Cusack’s turn as Nixon is both ingenuously lazy and charmingly surreal – no effort is made to convince the audience that the man onscreen is anybody but John Cusack (in contrast to Liev Schreiber’s Norbit-esque turn as LBJ), yet the continued reference toward Cusack as one of modern history’s most readily recognizable and continually invoked Commanders in Chief has a certain Dadaist charm to it, as if Daniels and Cusack were admitting playfully that this was simply yet another star turn and that Nixon was too large and imposing a historical figure to channel with any serious effort for a film not about Nixon. Nixon himself, of course, probably wouldn’t stand for a film not about Nixon.

Nixon is a figure that refuses to leave public consciousness. The central subject of more narrative films than any modern President, Nixon’s endless contradictions, standalone history, and almost inscrutable public appeal has provided a subject of endless fascination for storytellers of all stripes, from John Adams to Robert Altman. Here’s an overview of the 37th President’s cinematic highlights.

Secret Honor (1984)

As with many careers of great directors from the seventies, the eighties were not a good time for Robert Altman. Between the fiasco that was Popeye and his early nineties comeback with The Player, Altman’s eighties career was littered with minor works, save for his underrated teleplays including Tanner ’88 and this one-man show featuring Philip Baker Hall as a disgraced, post-presidency Nixon who recalls, with great brooding anger and resentment (and booze), the trials of his life and career in what is basically a 90-minute monologue.

Altman’s signature is perhaps his overlapping dialogue – and while Secret Honor takes a 180 degree turn from the ensembles that defined Altman’s seventies career, Hall allows Nixon’s solitary dialogue to overlap itself, preventing the finishing of one thought or frustration to suddenly move on to another, as if Nixon’s life and character were so complex that not even he could articulate who he is or what he believes in.

Nixon here is armed with a revolver, a tape recorder, and a bottle of scotch, wavering between fond recollections of his humble beginnings gone awry and unmitigated anger at those who he believes sought to destroy him at his every move. While the minimalist restraints in such an approach can be claustrophobic (one man, one room), this intimacy allows us to watch a man fall apart as he purges his many demons.

Nixon’s paranoia while in office extends here to his private, secluded post-presidency career, as his study is littered with surveillance material. Nixon obsessively continues to record every thing he says and does (despite that such self-surveillance is what got him expelled from office in the first place), presuming that all of his ideas are urgent and important enough to be recorded, thereby naively refusing to admit he now exists solitarily in a nation that wants so badly to forget him. When Secret Honor ends, the surveillance cameras turn on Nixon himself, suggesting that the person Nixon fears most is the one staring at him in the mirror.

Nixon (1995)

Released not long after Nixon’s death in 1994, Oliver Stone’s elephantine biopic attempts to cover every possible territory in the man’s life and presidency, positing his rise and fall as Shakespearean tragedy. While the film attempts to humanize Anthony Hopkins’s Nixon, his lust for power is presented as always stemming from a God complex that has driven him tooth-and-nail since birth to prove his own innate superiority over all other men. Nixon constantly refers to himself in the third person, and anytime he and Haldeman (James Woods) discuss the myth of the American Dream in respect to their many abuses of executive privilege, neither Haldeman nor Nixon ever seem to believe any of that crap beyond which of their actions it can justify.

Nixon’s constituents act as cheerleaders (especially when his presidency begins to fall apart), constantly massaging the president’s inflated sense of self while expressing their very sincere doubts as soon as they step into the hallway of the oval office, reflecting the “community of consent” Nixon developed in the White House which only further entrenched him from the voices of a conflicted, pluralistic populace.

Stone’s most notable attempts at humanization are his use of flashbacks, but such devices only present Nixon’s habit of altering the truth as having been rooted in childhood. The film even diagnoses his self-destructive lust for power as the result of a disappointing performance as a college football player. Still, Stone makes little connection between the younger Nixons and the one who would become president, never showing how his “humble Quaker upbringing” (often his most potent political tool) led to his wielding of power as a cudgel. The implausible, nuance-free scene above (as only Oliver Stone can do it) portrays how Nixon’s presidency had a tin ear to the ills of war and was built upon on national disunity, with the shadow of Lincoln forever echoing in the background.

However, Hopkins’s and Stone’s Nixon is undeniably smart and shrewd, presented as having had the rhetorical ability to squash the voices of dissent by his intimidating, sheer force of personality. Nixon’s Nixon is the type of slimy politician who could weasel his way into virtually any place of power, who could manipulate even the loudest of dissenters to vote for him against any aspect of their will, while somehow able to separate himself from the most radical of the right wing. In other words, Stone sees Nixon as one of the greatest politicians in American history.

Dick (1999)

Although the tone of both Secret Honor and Nixon may refuse to admit it, there’s something funny to be found even in a nation’s most troubling hour. Dick, a strange bedfellow of the brief late-90s teen film renaissance, asks what it would be like if a pair of stereotypically blonde high school girls had an unknowing, unintended role in the Watergate scandal. This Kristen Dunst and Michelle Williams-starring film was an oddball sell in 1999, but Dick utilizes its conceit to great effect, filling in every gap of the last chapter of Nixon’s presidency, from the missing eighteen minutes to the identity of Deep Throat.

Dan Hedaya, who had a small role as a Nixon constituent in Nixon, here plays the man himself – and I must say, more so than anybody else who has embodied Tricky Dick, Hedaya’s given visage appears notably constant with the president’s inimitable, cartoonish physical features. He lacks the exaggerated nose, but in channeling his slimy character from the Coens’s Blood Simple., he seems to need no prosthetic assistance.

Dick’s best surprise is its take on Woodward and Bernstein, an about-face of Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman’s roles in All the President’s Men. Bernstein is played by The Kids in the Hall’s Bruce McCulloch and Woodward by an SNL-era Will Ferrell, and they’re represented as egotistical, immature, conceited man-children who seek to implicate Nixon in Watergate not for social justice, but in order to reign victor in a dick-measuring contest (sorry) between themselves – and such roles have patterned the careers of both Ferrell and Woodward since.

But perhaps Dick’s smartest move is the very presence of the oblivious high school girls. Still in the patriotic public school history class mode of treating the President of the United States as a man of uncontested honor and dignity, they embody the gap between the office’s ideal and its operations. We first meet these characters on a field trip to the White House, where the students are portrayed as both ignorant of and apathetic toward the protests. And, in a great jab at the gradual displacement of civic duty with consumer demand, the students never show excitement until they take a break at McDonald’s. By the end of the film, they represent a new type of active citizen: a radical not built through the tactics of the 1960s, but through earnest respect for the office, a plea for dog-friendliness, and good old-fashioned revenge.

Frost/Nixon (2008)

Frank Langella is 6’3”, nearly a half a foot taller than the real-life Nixon. The second performer (after Hopkins) to be nominated for Best Actor for playing the 37th President of the United States, the towering Langella portrays Nixon as hunched, as if he’s been burdened with the weight of a history he does not yet understand and is only beginning to come to terms with (his solitary breakdown as fantasized about in Secret Honor comes later).

Released in the final days of the second Bush administration, Frost/Nixon calls forth the continued presence of history not to provide a direct analogy to contemporaneous crises, but to highlight the singularity of an event that, in all likelihood will never happen again: a US President who left the office in shambles and becomes publicly accountable for his transgressions. When Nixon states (here with far more dramatic pause than in reality) that, “…when the President does it, it’s not illegal,” it is, in its own way, his most honest admission about his entire presidency, and a sentiment that had potent reverberations for the decades and office-holders that followed.

Frost/Nixon explores the stature of a public figure in a position that nobody before had ever occupied, and it highlights the public tensions exercised between that figure’s own attempts at legacy-building and the narrative that develops around him. The office of the Presidency was never the same after the age of broadcast media, and the aforementioned goes for the office of the post-presidency. For somebody to move from the most recognizable figure in the world to complete inaccessibility as a result of disgrace accounts for a curious maneuver that no amount of skill and grace can ease. Frost/Nixon is a Hollywoodized yet interesting portrayal of what one who carries the weight of history can do within the space of a limbo. Such an interview that asks truth of (former) power will likely never find an equivalent. Cheers to you, David Frost.

Our Nixon (2013)

The best performer of Nixon, of course, was himself. With the troves of archives from the Nixon presidency that have emerged in the past few decades, Tricky Dick has paradoxically emerged as one of our most legible politicians, donning one face for the public spotlight and another for conversations between his advisers. Penny Lane’s archival documentary Our Nixon, which aired on CNN earlier this summer and is now circulating in limited release, captures on the latter through home videos by White House aides Haldeman, Erlichman, and Chapin in combination with other historical materials.

The result is a surprisingly intimate look at obsessive documentation during an old media age, a rare semi-comprehensive lens into a once-secret presidency as a result of practices that seem contradictory for a regime submerged in paranoia. Home movies, as demonstrated by Our Nixon, were viewed as strictly private property, not materials for the public sphere, even if those materials involved the most powerful office-holder in the world. That’s what makes Our Nixon so riveting: it’s an earnest look at the administration that defined the cynicism of the modern American presidency.

And as the title and the public availability of the seized home videos indicate, Nixon has long been a figure that doesn’t belong to private tapes of conversations in confidence, behind closed doors and in private conversations, but was a complex and colorful figure in a position of public servitude whose history and ever-present image belongs to the public that elected him, reviled him, attempted to forget him, longed to make sense of him, and continually returned to dissecting him as a person who contains seemingly endless layers of both fact and fiction.

A version of this piece originally appeared on the author’s personal blog. But that was way back during the Bush administration.