Nixon gets stoned

Salon interviews Oliver Stone about his film "Nixon".

Published December 16, 1995 6:54PM (EST)

Whatever else one thinks of Oliver Stone, no one can accuse him of being detached. This is a man who throws himself, sometimes overboard, at the great issues of our time: yuppie greed ("Wall Street"), bloodthirsty media ("Natural Born Killers"), Vietnam ("Platoon," "Born on the Fourth of July") and the Kennedy assassination ("JFK").

His latest broadside, "Nixon," is a typically grandiose portrait of a man who left a permanent shadow on America's collective psyche. Whether audiences will sit still for a 3-hour movie about a dead president remains to be seen -- although they did the same for "JFK."

Clearly, the drive to complete "Nixon" and publicize the movie has taken its toll on Stone. During a recent interview in his Manhattan hotel suite, the 49-year-old Academy Award-winning writer-director appeared tired. His pasty complexion, and the heavy bags under his brown eyes, bore witness to long hours in the editing booth.

You have a knack for turning your movies into ''events.'' How do you do it?

It's not deliberate. I don't stick a pin in the wall and say, ''Hey, abortion, that's a controversial subject. I'm gonna do an abortion movie.'' That's not the way I think. I'm fascinated enough by Nixon to learn more, to express something about America.

Did you become more sympathetic toward Nixon while making the movie?

Empathetic is the word. He was a man. He lived a life in the arena, sometimes right, sometimes wrong. You have to put flesh on the man. Liberals from the '60s still hate him; it's a badge of honor. They won't lose their anger. Maybe they feel their suit of armor will fall off, or they'll lose their identity. It's time to move beyond that ideology and look at what he was and what he did, especially now with the legislation coming from the Republicans. A lot of them are Nixon clones.

He was practically canonized at the funeral. What was your gut reaction?

If you had never known about him, and you saw the funeral on TV, you would have thought he was a great national hero like Winston Churchill or something. What happened at the funeral is typical of television. Nixon dies and suddenly he's a great patriarch and statesman.

Casting a British actor who doesn't resemble Nixon was an in-your-face move. Did you do it to generate a certain buzz?
I wouldn't characterize that as a motivation. It works. He feels like Nixon. In ''Remains of the Day,'' I felt his sense of isolation, his sense of sadness. In ''Shadowlands," there was an emotional fullness to his character. Hopkins is a complete actor. He's not like some of these by-the-numbers TV actors who have their bag of tricks. Tony is sincerely exploring the universe. He's bold.
Three hours, 10 minutes is a long time to ask an audience to pay attention, especially to an unpopular historical figure. Could you have edited more?
The film kept me rapt. I didn't look at my watch. It's a big story. It covers the century. It tries to give a sense of the American experience.
How do you think the political establishment will react to the movie?
I imagine negatively, because they don't like the things I do. They've been very critical of (my) historical interpretations. There's a high priesthood in a sense that thinks they own the dogma. It's the scholars, academics and politicians -- the guys with the cloaks.
John Ehrlichman, Nixon's domestic policy chief, has blasted the veracity of "Nixon," especially when it deals with Watergate, saying, ''It's not even a dramatization of history. It's made up stuff, and it's very cruel.''
He took a negative attitude way back when he saw an earlier draft of the script. I think he comes off well in the movie, better than he really was. He was busted.

While we're on the subject of the president's men, in his autobiography, the late H.R. Haldeman wrote that Nixon played a role in numerous assassination attempts, including plots against Castro, an allegation you highlight in the movie. But Haldeman later denied it, attributing the words to his ghostwriter. What do you think?
I don't believe that. He said it. He knew what he was saying. I think Nixon warmed up to him after he got out of jail and then he (Haldeman) went soft.
Have you finally put Vietnam to rest?
I always get asked that and I always say sure. I think to root out the consciousness of the period requires more than one film. ''JFK'' is a bookend to ''Nixon.'' I'm approaching the same era from different places, hoping to create a prism for a complete look at that era. ''The Doors'' movie in a sense is about that era, too.
Does your continuing interest in this earlier period make your movies of limited appeal to younger generations?
Probably. Maybe. But I don't think in those terms. I realize that some teenagers won't care. They're more interested in music and drugs. That's their call. Nixon's tragedy is a lesson for all of us. Much of modern politics in America is a result of his techniques.

By Salon Staff

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