Biopic, Political Drama and the Tragedy of Richard M Nixon

In 2012, Stephen Spielberg’s Lincoln opened to critical acclaim. Loosely based on Doris Kearn Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, the epic biopic of one of America’s most famous presidents racked up not only a slew of awards but perhaps formed the ideal of what a political film should look like. It was that rare meld of impressive direction, great acting and first-class writing. Spielberg presented a dignified portrait of the 16th president, civil war leader and emancipator of slaves. Day Lewis’ portrayal combined humanity with political realism. Not only are the themes big, undoubtedly of historical importance, but through the imperfect nature of the motivation and action there is - surely? - an element of true bravery and idealism. We know that ultimately the Confederate forces will be defeated, slavery abolished and the slow progress towards black civil rights begun. We also know that he will be assassinated.

Lincoln’s story is generically tragic. It combines contention and sacrifice with hope. It is this idea of struggle against adversity but for an ultimate purpose which is makes politics ripe for dramatisation. In an age of mistrust of political elites, political fiction gives us an ideal, both in cinema and on television. For every House of Cards, there is a West Wing or Madam Secretary; you give me Shooter (2007), I’ll fire back Rod Lurie’s The Contender or Gore Vidal’s The Best Man (1964). Of course, there are more morally nuanced films such as Advise and Consent (1962) or, more recently, Ides of March (2011) but feelgood political drama resonates.

George Washington, Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy have all been portrayed numerous times. Each had very different struggles. Each story contains elements of victory. Less heroically, John Adams merited a 2008 mini-series, Harry Truman an earlier TV movie. One can argue their historical importance, but is not the message that each of them held greatness in their hands? Even the improbable Truman. Truth may or may not be stranger than fiction but factual (even if loose) political drama appeals to - and creates - our collective mythology.

Nixon holds an iconic status in political imagination

Equally portrayed - in theatre, television, cinema and even opera - is the 36th in that line: Richard Milhous Nixon. Elvis and Nixon, with Michael Shannon and Kevin Spacey respectively, is but the latest of many portraits and dissections of Tricky Dicky. At first glance, he is an odd addition to the pantheon. Yet he has been portrayed (too often to mention them all) by actors from Beau Bridges to Tony Hopkins; his fictional self has appeared in Futurama and cameoed on Call of Duty. In terms of history Nixon’s story is innately dramatic, whether it be Vietnam, the recognition of China or Watergate, he has significance and he remains the only president to have faced impeachment and to have been thus forced from office. Also Nixon, in a strangely negative way, had that rare gift for self-dramatisation, whether it be his famous Checkers speech, his dramatic withdrawal from politics after his 1962 Californian gubernatorial defeat or his resignation itself. As a hate figure or (less frequently) a figure to be admired, Richard Nixon holds an iconic status in political imagination.

Lincoln or Kennedy may have dramatic interest; their deaths may speak to a sense of sadness. However, it is Nixon who has become the epitome of political tragedy. And tragedy, in its truest sense, is interesting.

The best-known, and probably most complete, cinematic study of Richard Nixon is Oliver Stone’s Nixon (1995) with Hopkins as the president and Joan Allen as his wife Pat. Stone had previously (tangentially) covered Kennedy in JFK, and would go on to film W., about George W. Bush. Hopkins is technically great as Nixon, emotionally he less so. Yet the film rests on its not unsympathetic portrayal of the man. The direction constantly focuses on the falseness of Nixon’s political persona as he switches to his political face before the crowd. It goes into greater detail about his upbringing and exposes the flaws of the adult: paranoid, insecure, desperate for love and constantly plagued by his sense of inferiority to Kennedy. It is these flaws which lead to his downfall.

Fascination with Nixon can also be seen with Frost/Nixon, which premiered at the Donmar Warehouse in 2006, and was later made into a film. Narrower in scope than Stone’s work, it covers the short period after he left office and the infamous series of interviews he conducted with TV personality David Frost (Michael Sheen). Frank Langella’s Nixon is more benign, less energetic but his pettiness seeps out throughout the film. But whereas the dramatic peripeteia of Nixon is in his resignation, Frost/Nixon sees catharsis in his unexpected admission of wrongdoing in the Watergate scandal. It is a compelling moment of a man confronting his own frailty.

Elvis and Nixon lacks the depth of Stone’s Nixon or the catharsis of Morgan’s Frost/Nixon. About the 1970 Oval Office meeting between the two men, it is a character study of two men at the pinnacles of the respectives careers. Despite the oddity and assurance, the certainty of their positions is deceptive. Each faces challenges. Spacey is workmanlike, just about capturing Nixon’s tenseness and quivering jowls. Shannon has a far easier task.

in drama Richard Nixon achieves what real life denied him

Although it is one of the more unsatisfying investigations there are hints here of why Nixon remains prolifically portrayed in drama. Despite the oddity and assurance, the certainty of their positions is deceptive. Each faces challenges.

The notion of tragedy is something which Stone picks up on most readily. Nixon’s presidency begins with violence and protest which continues until his resignation. There is a sense, like the plague which bedevilled Thebes in Oedipus, of a malignancy within the body politic. It is only when Nixon is removed that the plague is ended. Stone's is a study in leadership - good and bad - like all tragedy: the president struggles not just with himself but against wider forces (personified by J. Edgar Hoover) which he can tame but he cannot control, an obvious parallel with tragic heroes from Oedipus to Ajax who exist under divine forces.

Moreover, whereas Kennedy, who defeated him in the 1960 election, enthrals because of his good looks, the myth of Camelot and the potential cut off mid-stream, Nixon’s unsuccessful struggle is not just with the world but with himself. Stone’s W. was a poignant look at a man out of his depths. But Bush’s term in office ended with a whimper; Nixon’s - like Thatcher’s (also portrayed often) - with a bang. JFK’s assassination - essentially out of his control - brings about his end; Nixon’s insecurity and, paradoxically, hubris cause his. It is the morally neutral nature of the weakness - if not the human and personal consequences - which propel the fascination. All political careers end in failure but Nixon fails because of his own imperfection. Kennedy’s death is upsetting; Nixon’s dramatic downfall is almost Aristotelian in its understanding of tragedy.

It is perhaps significant that Stone’s sympathetic Nixon was released a year after the former president’s death. The generation which lived through the long nightmare of Vietnam and then Watergate saw Richard Nixon as the embodiment of evil. Yet it is precisely because he was not that which makes him a fine subject for drama. Whereas we often see politics in polarised terms, drama often relies on shades of grey. Studies in evil do fascinate but conflict drives our imagination. Whatever the reality (or perspectives on reality), the fictional Nixon thrives because he combines the potential for greatness with a capacity for self-destruction. His childhood trauma feeds his ambition with a pathological need for power. In this he resembles William Randolph Hearst in Citizen Kane. It also destroys him.

In reality the rehabilitation Nixon strove for after his resignation was only ever partial; in drama Richard Nixon achieves what real life denied him. Thus he personifies not only the political world, but also us. As Kissinger says in Stone’s Nixon the night before he resigns: "Can you imagine what this man would have been had he ever been loved? It is a tragedy because he had greatness in his grasp."

So Richard Nixon’s rise and shabby downfall becomes not just the ultimate political tragedy but also, in a curiously elevated situation, the most human of stories.

More about the author

About the author

Educated at Durham University and UCL, Graham is Disclaimer's editor and a regular contributor. He has written for numerous publications including Tribune, Out Magazine and Vice. He has also contributed to two books of political counterfactuals for Biteback Media, Prime Minister Boris (2011) and Prime Minister Corbyn (2016).

A democratic republican lefty, he struggles daily with the conflict between his ingrained senses of idealism and pragmatism.

Follow Graham on Twitter.

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