On the Authenticity of Biopics — a Look at Oliver Stone’s Nixon

When crafting a “biopic” or another narrative rooted in reality, what obligation does the storyteller have to historical accuracy versus conveying a philosophical idea? If the storyteller chooses the latter, is it still fair to claim that the story is “biographical?”

I’m more of the “maintaining artistic integrity” type, meaning that historicity means less to me than style and the final theme conveyed by the story. My colleague, however, sees my viewpoint as “misleading.” She believes that audiences expect a truthful story when watching any kind of movie with real-life historical roots — even if it’s obviously historical fiction. Personally, I believe that’s a fault of modern society, that we’d pretty much accept a film’s depiction of a historical event without question, and the artist should have the creative license to do what he or she pleases. Oliver Stone is notorious for changing the facts of historical events for dramatic effect, as seen in Nixon, Stone’s 1995 account of Richard Nixon’s personal and political life.

The line is very much blurred in Oliver Stone’s Nixon, beginning with the fact that the actor chosen to play the titular president—Anthony Hopkins—looks nothing like his true-life counterpart. It’s obvious that Hopkins was selected because of his skills as an actor. We have to consider both Oliver Stone’s ultimate goal in creating Nixon and the inherent nature of a “biopic” before rendering any judgment. In evaluating the latter, first we have to define exactly what constitutes a “biopic.” According to Merriam-Webster, the definition of “biography” is simply, “an account of someone’s life written by someone else.” There’s no requirement for truthfulness listed. Therefore, if Stone set out to create a narrative that captures the essence of the historical President Nixon, so to speak, with no promises of truthfulness, then it’s unfair to detract from the auteur’s integrity. This and the fact that the opening moments of Nixon contains a disclaimer admitting that some of film was composed from “conjecture,” we can make an informed guess that much of the movie’s focus is on the “feel” of Nixon’s presidency, and the emotional landscape of the American public throughout his term.

The Disclaimer: “This film is an attempt to understand the truth of Richard Nixon, thirty-seventh president of the United States. It is based on numerous public sources and on an incomplete historical record. In consideration of length, events and characters have been condensed, and some scenes among protagonists have been conjectured” (Oliver Stone, 1995).

Here, Stone openly admits that the movie may contain strong elements of fiction for the sake of creative license Also, note the first line of the disclaimer—the film is “an attempt to understand the truth of Richard Nixon,” which I interpreted as the movie’s transcendence beyond the “established facts” of history and into the realm of the surreal, all in an attempt to capture sum and substance of President Nixon’s psyche. I find that the inclusion of the disclaimer shines a light on honesty on Stone as opposed to the auteurs that create movies tagged with “based on a true story” in their loglines. In simpler terms, Nixon is historical creative non-fiction. Stone would later take this style of narrative storytelling to the extreme with W—his 2008 “biopic” on George W. Bush.

This isn’t to say that the movie is “revisionist” in the sense that Stone was attempting to literally change history. Instead, he was re-examining the mythos of Nixon and his relationship to American history. The very mention of Watergate sparks images of backroom deals with snake-like politicians, giggling maniacally over the spoils of their conspiracy. But, Stone doesn’t want us to forgive. He wants us to examine how and why someone would go as far as Nixon did.

We’re introduced to Nixon’s inferiority complex almost immediately and a tendency to blame others for the mistakes he’s made. He claims that the public chastises him because, “They’ve always hated Nixon.” From there, we’re swept away into Nixon’s early upbringing. He mentions how his father was “never beaten” despite how poor he was. That fear of inadequacy—of ending up like his father—affected his actions for the rest of his life. He began to incessantly blame others for his failings, as depicted in an early scene with wife Pat Nixon after ABC predicts that Governor Pat Brown would beat Nixon in the 1962 California gubernatorial election. After blaming Fidel Castro, the missile crisis and Kennedy for his loss, Pat simply states: “I suppose Castro staged the whole thing just to beat you”.

Moments later, Pat asks for a divorce, citing multiple reasons including the notion that Nixon doesn’t see his own children often. He immediately deflects the accusation, claiming that “they” want to drive his family apart. This particular scene is profound because it doesn’t absolve Nixon of any crimes or even casts him in a positive light. However, we can empathize with Nixon simply because we can relate to his dream of being something more—a universal desire throughout society. Thus, the “feel” of Nixon is captured. The ability to agree with someone’s actions and empathize with that person isn’t mutually exclusive, and because of this, the integrity of the “biopic” is maintained.

The dilemma of historical truth versus philosophical message arises later in the movie, where Oliver Stone made the questionable choice to link Kennedy’s assassination with Nixon. This is most likely why Stone appended the movie with a disclaimer. It seems that Stone included this plot point for shock value, and not for the audience to further empathize with Nixon. Without the proper historical context, the disclaimer’s message that Nixon exists as a thought experiment on the former president’s mindset is rendered useless. The inclusion of the conspiracy theory hurts the film more so than Stone forcing the narrative to mirror that of a tragedy, replete with the moment of catharsis at the end, when Nixon addresses the White House staff before his iconic departure by helicopter from the White House lawn. In fact, the inclusion of the “character flaw” as seen in the Shakespearean tragedy—Nixon’s inferiority complex in this case—serves to endear the audience, as fears of inadequacy is yet another universal human experience.

The historical inaccuracies can be forgiven, however, if audiences use Nixon as a guide to understanding his mythos, and rely on peer-reviewed research to discover the historicity of his life and legacy. Perhaps Oliver Stone believes that a person is more than the sum of his actions and those actions can be discarded or re-examined if it leads to an increased understanding of the world, and that’s why he chose to blur the line between reality and fantasy. Or, perhaps this is how Stone believes Nixon viewed himself and thus, the movie truly is a “biography.” After all, perception is often truth.

What do you think? When writing a biopic, are you required to be as historically accurate as possible? If not, what constitutes the “truth” of the subject? Sound off in the comments!

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