(Warning: contains spoilers for several films)
Richard Nixon turns up in the strangest places. This summer's blockbuster, X-Men: Days of Future Past, sends Marvel's mutant superheroes back to 1973. After witnessing an assassination attempt by Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), Nixon's (Mark Camacho) manipulated by an anti-mutant scientist (Peter Dinklage) into authorizing the destructive Sentinel program. Magneto (Michael Fassbender) tries to kill Nixon, but Mystique intervenes and thwarts Magneto. Nixon gratefully shuts down the Sentinels and mutants live happily ever after.
Why does Hollywood love Richard Nixon? Save Abraham Lincoln, he's featured in more films than any other president, including such diverse works as Frost/Nixon, Watchmen and Black Dynamite. With his resignation's 40th anniversary approaching, we'll assess Tricky Dick's cinematic legacy.
For a start, Nixon's life reads like a Greek tragedy. Born in California to Quaker parents, Nixon lost two brothers in childhood and scraped through law school at Whittier and Duke. After World War II service, Nixon's elected to Congress and the Senate, Vice President, a heartbreaking loss to John F. Kennedy, an improbable resurrection. Then an eventful presidency, wrestling with Vietnam, detente with China and the USSR, domestic unrest - and crimes ranging from political sabotage to fixing trials of radicals and overthrowing foreign leaders.
From his days as a Red-baiting Congressman through his polarizing presidency, Nixon served as a left-wing hate figure. Mainstream liberals like Harry Truman ("a shifty-eyed goddamn liar") and radicals like Hunter S. Thompson ("a swine of a man and a jabbering dupe of a president") thought Nixon embodied everything base and cynical about American politics. His practiced sincerity, public awkwardness and distrust of the press contributed to a perception of dishonesty. After Watergate, radicals viewed Nixon as the figurehead of a corrupt System.
So it's easy to make Nixon a monster. All the President's Men (1976) shows Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) unraveling Watergate while Nixon's operatives stonewall, stalk and bug them. More recently, Watchmen (2009) has an antiquated Nixon (Robert Wisden) itching to start World War III. Lee Daniels' The Butler (2013) depicts Nixon (John Cusack) drinking and dropping racial slurs as Forrest Whittaker glowers. Of course he's evil - he's Nixon!
When not demonized, Nixon's typically ridiculed. His unique appearance (sloping nose, sweaty brow, perpetual stubble) makes him easy to caricature, if not impersonate. (Try finding an actor who actually resembles him.) Hence Emile de Antonio's Millhouse: A White Comedy (1971), focusing on humiliations like the 1952 Checkers Speech; Dick (1999), where he's Michelle Williams' teenage dream; and TV's Futurama, where Nixon's severed head rules America from a jar. In 2013, Harry Shearer spoofed Tricky Dick on SkyTV's Nixon's the One!
More serious portrayals grapple with Nixon's tortured personality. Robert Altman's Secret Honor (1984) is a one-man show, with the disgraced ex-President (Phillip Baker Hall) recounting his life, career and demons into a tape recorder. Though Altman claims this approach marks "an attempt to understand," Hall's manic performance diffuses our sympathy. He's less introspective than deranged, brandishing a gun, barking like a dog and plotting his political comeback. Honor ends with Nixon repeatedly swearing at the camera, manic to the end.
Oliver Stone's Nixon (1995) provides an exhaustive biopic, covering his life from Whittier to Watergate. Stone makes Nixon a tragic villain, equal parts Richard III and Charles Foster Kane. Portrayed by Anthony Hopkins with crabbed, profane intensity, Nixon suffers from incurable ambition stoked by childhood. He runs for President to fill a personal void, resenting anyone standing in his way. Yet Nixon can't enjoy his presidency, tortured by his desire for public adoration.
Stone best illustrates this in two scenes. In a sequence inspired by real-life, Nixon visits the Lincoln Memorial and encounters antiwar protestors. Nixon tries chatting with the students, who are baffled by his awkward small talk and mock him as powerless against the System. Later, Nixon spots a portrait of Kennedy and ponders their contrasting images. “When people look at you, they see themselves as they want to be," Nixon muses; "when they look at me, they see themselves as they are.”
But Stone cheapens the effect by having Nixon's confidantes psychoanalyze him. First Lady Pat (Joan Allen) tires of his self-pity: "When are the rest of us going to stop paying off your debts?" Henry Kissinger (Paul Sorvino) muses what Nixon might have been "if he'd ever been loved." Even Mao Zedong joins in, braying "You're as evil as I am!" Poor Dick, hounded by wives and dictators alike!
If Stone extends Nixon personal sympathy, he excoriates his presidency. Stone cuts between Nixon's idealistic acceptance speech and his ordering troops into Cambodia. He's also shown ordering CIA surveillance of student radicals and orchestrating sabotage of political opponents. More dubiously, Stone postulates Nixon as complicit in Kennedy's assassination, a pawn in the military-industrial complex. When Nixon defies the CIA and big business, he sews the seeds of his destruction.
Ron Howard balances the ledger with Frost/Nixon (2008). Based on Peter Morgan's play, Frost/Nixon dramatizes Nixon's post-presidential interviews with British journalist David Frost (Michael Sheen). Frank Langella makes Nixon image-obsessed, looking to clear his name (and earn some cash) through a collegial interview. Frost and his team have other plans, hoping to extract a confession for Watergate. The stage is set for a "no holds barred" joust between plucky journalist and embittered president.
Langella's Nixon seems bizarrely genteel, even patrician. He banters with Frost, flirts with Frost's girlfriend (Rebecca Hall) and is uncharacteristically cool-headed on-camera. One exception comes when Nixon drunk-dials Frost, unleashing a furious tirade about his lifelong battle against liberals and snobs. This twisted monologue brilliantly captures Nixon's neurotic self-pity. Yet it's far removed from the aloof, tightly-wound statesman elsewhere in the film.
Television's provided many Nixons: Beau Bridges, Bob Gunton, Jason Robards, Rip Torn. The standout among these is Lane Smith in The Final Days (1989). Smith is among the few Nixon actors to actually resemble the President, rivaling Hopkins as his best impersonator.
Even the best Nixon films elide key questions: what was Nixon's appeal with the American public? Did he have a coherent presidential vision alongside the paranoia? Important issues for analyzing how such a strange, tortured man ascended to the White House. But mockery is easier than understanding. Whether sabotaging rivals or antagonizing superheroes, Hollywood will always have Dick Nixon to kick around.