WASHINGTON -- In the long wait leading up to this week's release of filmmaker Oliver Stone's "Nixon," the main question from defenders of historical accuracy was this: Would Mr. Stone once again run roughshod over the facts with the same kind of fake authenticity that marred his earlier, controversial film, "JFK"?
The answer is no. Mr. Stone seems to have been reined in by the widespread and justified criticism of the special brand of cinematic deception that enabled him in "JFK" to present conspiratorial conjectures as actual events you could see with your own eyes. In "JFK," Mr. Stone took actual documentary footage and spliced onto it fictional scenes shot in the same grainy black and white so as to make it all seem one.
In "Nixon," there is not nearly as much misrepresentation of events. Mr. Stone
uses the contrast of color and black-and-white effectively to connote switches from present to past in an undertaking at lifelong biography that is much more honest than the argument for a dark conspiracy in John F. Kennedy's assassination.
The presentation of the highlights in Richard M. Nixon's career -- from his early political climb marked by red-baiting, his defeat by Kennedy in 1960 and his humiliating gubernatorial loss in California in 1962 to his election in 1968 and his political and personal unraveling in Watergate and his forced resignation in 1974 -- are generally accurate and dramatically gripping.
Yet Mr. Stone has not entirely resisted the temptation of conspiracy in "Nixon," introducing some veiled and muddy dialogue implying that Mr. Nixon, played by Anthony Hopkins, somehow was linked to the Kennedy assassination through some unstated connection with the Bay of Pigs fiasco. The implication, injected and left hanging under the veil of the infamous 18 1/2 -minute gap in his Oval Office tapes, is a jarring reminder of the worst offenses of "JFK."
So are suggestions without proof that Mr. Nixon's path to the presidency was cleared nefariously by the deaths of John and Robert Kennedy, with J. Edgar Hoover, gangster and Cuban connections all involved in various, unspecified plottings. Such flights may titillate but they impair the integrity of the film.
He also depicts as fact important matters for which there has never been any public acknowledgment, such as a scene in which Pat Nixon, portrayed admirably by Joan Allen, informs her husband that she wants a divorce in the wake of political defeat.
Other, minor scenes show incidents that never happened, such as Mr. Nixon's spying a girl holding a sign reading "Bring Us Together" during a debate, when in fact he never saw any such thing, but was advised by an aide later to use the slogan in his remarks the morning after his election in 1968.
As in a current made-for-television film, "Kissinger and Nixon," the late president is portrayed as an obsessive drinker, which may have been true in the final stages of his forced departure from the White House, but was not the case earlier in his career. For most of his political life he was, in fact, so careful of his physical condition that he was more likely to end an evening with an early nightcap of milk and cookies.
For all these reasons, while Mr. Stone in "Nixon" does not sink to the distortions and deceptions of "JFK," the techniques and liberties that seem to be essential ingredients in his filmmaking take a toll on fact. It is Mr. Stone's stated contention that his movie is a "dramatic representation" of Mr. Nixon's life, and it certainly is that. The problem is that in the style that mixes the documentary approach with dramatic quasi-fiction, the viewer inevitably will have trouble always sorting fact from fiction.
One critic's comment played prominently in current newspaper ads for the new film says that "Hopkins is Nixon." But viewers who knew Nixon or observed at close range his remarkable if deeply flawed personality and career will take issue, though Mr. Hopkins does his usual outstanding job in conveying the inner conflicts of a very complicated, self-pitying figure.
Mr. Hopkins neither sounds like the real Nixon nor looks very much like him, for all the imaginative cosmetics and facial expressions. A brief film clip at the movie's end of the actual Nixon leaving the White House for the last time underscores this fact. In the made-for-TV movie, Beau Bridges looks and sounds much more like the real Nixon, though in a role less challenging than the introspective one Hopkins handles impressively.
Most other characters in "Nixon" look and sound more like the people they play, but that no doubt was easier to do, since none was as much a constant presence in the public eye over such a long period as was Mr. Nixon. (Paul Sorvino has the Henry Kissinger accent and somberness down pat, although Ron Silver in "Kissinger and Nixon" looks, sounds and acts even more like him.)
One of the most justifiable raps against Mr. Stone's "JFK" was that a generation of young Americans who weren't around when John Kennedy was assassinated or were too young at the time to remember all that happened then would take his conspiratorial version as fact.
Young Americans who weren't around for the Nixon saga do not face nearly the same risk in seeing "Nixon," as long as they recognize that they are seeing that saga through the prism of a dramatist with great flare, not a thoroughly disciplined historian.