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By Mark Noll
Losing It at the Movies
"Past Imperfect: History According to the Movies." General editor, Mark C. Carnes, Henry Holt, 304 pp.; $30
Can anything approximating historical reality survive in a commercial film? If you believe that a reasonably accurate sense of the past is a prerequisite for living meaningfully in the present--and if you have recently been to see Oliver Stone's Nixon, say, or Jefferson in Paris--merely to raise the subject is to invite despair.
To be sure, Stone's Nixon is not nearly as psychedelically fanciful as was his JFK. In that earlier film, Stone's depiction of a conspiracy hatched by LBJ, the CIA, and Big Business to rub out President Kennedy--as also the manic purity of Kevin Costner's portrayal of D.A. Jim Garrison--were so patently imaginary that one could be forgiven for thinking that Stone intended the movie as a kind of cinematic nightmare. Maybe he wanted to present a grotesquery prompted by, but deliberately unconstrained by, considerations of what actually took place.
By comparison with JFK, Nixon is less wanton in treating documented events. Moreover, Anthony Hopkins's skill at reciting Richard Nixon's speeches, and Joan Allen's technically compelling portrait of Pat Nixon reflect something more than merely promiscuous historical imagination.
Yet you do not have to be Henry Kissinger or one of the Nixon daughters to worry about the general stance of the movie. It is obvious that what most concerns Stone is not a verifiable realm of what President Nixon thought, did, believed, or said, but an inner realm of Freudian connections that explain why Nixon was who he was. Truth in advertising would have left the movie with a title along the lines of "Animadversions on How Richard Nixon's Relationship with His Mother Dictated the Shape of His Presidency." But such a title might have hurt the box office--which, however he treats other aspects of verifiable reality, seems to concern Oliver Stone very much indeed.
Another presidential bio-pic, the Ismail Merchant-James Ivory ...