What can you say about Richard Milhouse Nixon that hasn’t been said? Plenty, it seems, as Nixon is both star and supporting character in two films that go straight into that cultural heart of darkness called the 1970s, with some peculiar results.
We begin with "Black Dynamite," a wonderfully execrable send-up of those blaxploitation films that Quentin Tarantino saw way too many of during his video clerk days. Had Tarantino seen just a few less movies in his formative years, the world might be a safer place, or, at least, his films wouldn’t feel quite so much like overlong exercises in genre dissertation. But unlike Tarantino’s "Jackie Brown," "Black Dynamite" is truly an appalling movie, with almost no redeeming merit, other than lunatic conviction that someone, somewhere would want to pay to watch it. Like its hero, "Black Dynamite" is BAADDD.
But I mean that in a good way. One of the main reasons is the deadpan performance by co-screenwriter Michael Jai White as Mr. Dynamite. Of course he’s playing a parody of a joke of an archetype that was ludicrous to begin with, but don’t tell him that. He’ll rip your eyeballs out, Jim, as he convincingly demonstrates in the film’s insane semi-climax over on Kung Fu Island.
Confused? You should be.
The plot, such as it is, concerns the eponymous hero, fighting a dastardly scheme to hook little kids in the orphanage on smack. Combine that plot with another to spike Anaconda malt liquor with penis-shrinking drugs, and you get perhaps the ultimate Evil Plot -- that with impeccable logic and a solid grounding in modern American political history can only lead one place -- the White House of, yes, Richard M. Nixon.
Malevolent symbol of our national id, synthetic self-creation, and beloved punching bag, Richard Nixon was the White Whale to the Ahab of the '70s. Forty years later, we still haven’t quite managed to harpoon the bastard. Let’s see ... we’ve seen Nixon playing Nixon in De Antonio’s docudrama "Milhouse," Frank Langella’s Shakespearean turn in "Frost/Nixon," Rip Torn chewing all available scenery in "Blind Ambition," Philip Baker Hall’s tour de force in Robert Altman’s "Secret Honor," and, of course, Anthony Hopkins, in the definitive Oliver Stone movie, "Nixon." It was here that it all came together: Stone’s abilities as a filmmaker and a subject worthy -- and deserving -- of his paranoid worldview. Hopkins and Stone transformed the historical Nixon into something that many people didn’t want to contemplate -- an actual human being. "Even Richard Nixon has got soul," Neil Young once sang, and "Nixon" confirmed that tragic fact.
In "Black Dynamite," however, Richard Nixon is reduced to a simple role -- The Man. In perhaps the most surreal Oval Office encounter since the real deal met Elvis Presley, Black Dynamite and Tricky Dick exchange karate chops and nunchuck blows, and Pat Nixon gets pimp-slapped into a cabinet full of china. Now, the only things remotely black about Nixon were his dress socks, and the audacity of bringing these two '70s mythic figures together means that all rules of critical engagement must be suspended. "Black Dynamite" exuberantly allows many such trespasses, and invites the audience to roll with every extravagantly pulled punch. And by recognizing the mythic stature of Richard Nixon as one of America’s greatest unsung '70s movie stars, "Black Dynamite" makes a perfect double bill with another, equally forgotten surreal journey to the Nixon White House, "Dick."
Stated as loosely as this yarn deserves, "Dick" involves the adventures of two 15-year-old girls, played by Kirsten Dunst and "Dawson’s Creek" star Michelle Williams, who, in the process of mailing a love letter to Bobby Sherman, accidentally stumble upon G. Gordon Liddy in the process of breaking into the Watergate. As part of the sweaty coverup, the girls are bought off with a job as official White House dog-walkers. Among other previously undisclosed glimpses into the Nixon White House, we see Leonid Brezhnev crooning "Hello, Dolly!," a romantic Nixon riding a white horse to a sand-castle White House, and, perhaps most incredibly, an actually sympathetic, helpful Henry Kissinger, or, as our two heroines call him, "German Guy."
OK, at this point, they have gone too far into impossible fantasy.
"All the President's Men" this is clearly not, but don’t worry, Woodward and Bernstein do make an appearance, not as crusading heroes, but as the journalistic equivalent of Martin and Lewis. Somehow, this depiction captures the "ecstatic truth" of the Watergate story in ways that the Pakula film did not. Will Ferrell’s clueless Woodward and Bruce McCulloch’s Bernstein present the dynamic duo as egomaniacal, self-aggrandizing bumblers, which make the mendaciousness of their post-Watergate career actually explainable.
As in so many comedies, the gears begin to grind up about an hour in. But there are many joys to be had, even in the final half-hour, not least of which is the always welcome Teri Garr, being, well, Teri Garr in the role of Michelle’s wayward single mom. As for the stars, both Dunst and Williams are perfect as the ditzy pair, capturing the secret telepathic language of girlhood, at the very same time that they get across the "Being There" dynamic of great emptiness motivating great events. Only in this case, complete stupidity leads to the unmaking of a president, not the election of one -- a vicious cycle we now seemed destined to repeat.
As is so often the case, the smartness and basic assumption that the audience was in on at least some of the jokes doomed the film commercially, and "Dick" was dead on theatrical arrival. The pleasures of this film, and there are many, come from the same commitment and cockiness that drove "Black Dynamite" in (and, swiftly, out) of theaters.
The presumption that a contemporary audience would be conversant with all the twists, turns and trivia of the Watergate saga, would know what the 18-1/2 minute gap even was, let alone entertain a new theory as to how it was created, is breathtaking. Part of the fun in "Dick" is watching this parallel history snap into place. No detail is too small to escape detection, from the tape on the door jam at the scene of the Watergate break-in, to the invention of "Deep Throat" to the reason for John Dean’s historical attack of conscience.
But every Nixon movie rises and falls on the strength of the dark star at the center.
Any actor who tries to hunch into the dark suit, get the stubble thing going, and shake his jowls the way the babes in "Black Dynamite" shake their assorted moneymakers has some serious wingtips to fill. In "Dick," thankfully, Dan Hedaya fills them to perfection. Let’s face it, it is hard to pull off a Richard M. Nixon stoned on pot cookies, but Hedaya manages to make it seem true to character, and somehow, like so much in Nixon’s life, somewhat sad. Like so many great comic performances, Hedaya doesn’t play Nixon funny, he just plays Nixon, well, Nixon. The context and weight of our expectations do the rest.
The film’s ending, the emblematic scene of a discredited president flying from the White House, is choreographed to Carly Simon’s "You're So Vain" -- a fitting exit melody. The only better presidential exit was that of George W. Bush to that other golden oldie, "Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye." It’s sad, really, watching "Dick," to see that the film was released in 1999 -- one year before the Nixon 2.0, and the reboot of his administration. And this time around we didn’t even have a cartoon version of Woodward and Bernstein around to inadvertently save us from ourselves.
We didn’t know "Dick" then, and we still really don’t know dick now.