Issue 9: Feature Article—A Tale of Two Oliver Stone Films

For this issue, we take a look at two political films directed and co-written by Oliver Stone that took very different approaches to the use of historical ‘fact’ and research. Comparing the genesis of and reaction to JFK and Nixon offers an interesting perspective on bringing real life figures and events to life on screen, as well as the controversies which can result…

JFK (1991)

JFKposterFocussing on former New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner), the film presents the JFK assassination as a conspiracy that involved the highest levels of government, the CIA, the Mafia, the US military, the Secret Service, the FBI, and even Kennedy’s vice-president, Lyndon Baines Johnson.

Written by Oliver Stone and Zachary Sklar, the script is based on On the Trail of the Assassins by Garrison and Crossfire: The Plot That Killed Kennedy by Jim Marrs. It’s interesting that Stone called the account a “counter-myth” to the President’s Commission on the Assassination of President Kennedy’s (or Warren Commission’s) “fictional myth”.

You can read an interesting article on Stone’s take on the infamous Zupruder home movie footage of the assassination here.

Sklar, a journalist and a professor of journalism, had helped Garrison rewrite a manuscript about Kennedy’s assassination, revising it as a detective story.

Controversial even before its release, JFK distorts events to the point of invention. Not a crime in itself. However, the problem is that these events are presented as fact; insinuating a conspiracy plot to assassinate the president which is unsupported by historical evidence.

As such, the film caused an avalanche of comment and debate in the media and beyond. The film was accused of being “an insult to the intelligence” and denounced for “the absurdities and palpable untruths in Garrison’s book and Stone’s rendition of it”. Then president and chief executive of the Motion Picture Association of America, Jack Valenti, even drew parallels between Stone’s film and Leni Riefenstahl’s pro-Hitler propaganda film, Triumph of the Will.

In response, Stone mounted a publicity campaign to rebut the criticisms. He even admitted: “I can’t even remember all the threats, there were so many of them.”

However, it’s interesting to note that despite the reaction to the film’s historical accuracy (or lack thereof), it was still warmly received by audiences and critics. For example:

“The achievement of the film is not that it answers the mystery of the Kennedy assassination, because it does not, or even that it vindicates Garrison, who is seen here as a man often whistling in the dark. Its achievement is that it tries to marshal the anger which ever since 1963 has been gnawing away on some dark shelf of the national psyche.” (Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times)

“Quoting everyone from Shakespeare to Hitler to bolster their arguments, Stone and Sklar present a gripping alternative to the Warren Commission’s conclusion. A marvelously paranoid thriller featuring a closetful of spies, moles, pro-commies and Cuban freedom-fighters, the whole thing might have been thought up by Robert Ludlum.” (Rita Kempley, Washington Post)

JFK was also nominated for eight Oscars (including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published) and won two. Had it not been up against Silence of the Lambs, it may well have gone on to win more.

So what can we take from all this? On the surface, it seems like the message is that historical accuracy is unimportant. After all, if a film can invent history and still be widely acclaimed, then surely all bets are off? On a slightly deeper level, maybe it really all comes down to vested interest. After all, a viewer looking to be entertained may not be too concerned with the larger issues at play; however, a historian, journalist or other party may have a vested interest in the wider implications of the film. Indeed, many critics of the film cited the damage it potentially caused; not just to individual reputations but also to the integrity of government.

However, maybe the best summing up of the film comes courtesy of Chicago Sun-Times critic, Richard Roeper: “One can admire Stone’s filmmaking skills and the performances here, while denouncing the utter crapola presented as ‘evidence’ of a conspiracy to murder.” (Quotes and references)

Nixon (1995)

NixonmovieposterFour years later, Stone’s biopic of Richard Nixon was released. The film follows Nixon from his strict religious upbringing through to his political ascent to the presidency, which, of course, ended with his resignation following the Watergate scandal.

After being on the receiving end of a barrage of criticism for the historical inaccuracies in JFK, Stone adopted a very different perspective for Nixon, stressing the script (co-written by Stephen J. Rivele, Christopher Wilkinson and Stone) was based on thorough research. An academic footnote was even included in the script.

While not everyone was satisfied with Stone’s assurances of accuracy, the filmmaker acknowledges in a disclaimer that Nixon is “an attempt to understand the truth…based on numerous public sources and on an incomplete historical record”.

Stone gets around this incomplete record through some creative screenwriting and filmmaking techniques. The structure of the film is non-linear, utilizing extensive flashback sequences. The overall effect is to present the narrative as a subjective recollection. We see the events though Nixon’s broken, intermittent and skewed memory.

Overall, the film presents a more balanced portrait of the much-maligned Nixon that might have been expected. Of course, Watergate and its aftermath feature heavily, but the three-hour long film doesn’t shy away from highlighting Nixon’s achievements in office, including opening links with China, and his marriage to Pat. The film also insinuates drink and drug issues that are supposedly based on fact, but which were called into question.

The critics came out in force when the film was released (Stone is one those filmmakers that tends to provoke a reaction). Peter Travers of Rolling Stone said: “It’s gripping psychodrama — just don’t confuse Nixon with history.” Even the Nixon family issued a statement calling parts of the film “reprehensible” and that it was designed to “defame and degrade President and Mrs. Nixon’s memories in the mind of the American public”.

Among the more positive comments Roger Ebert said the film “took on the resonance of classic tragedy. Tragedy requires the fall of a hero, and one of the achievements of Nixon is to show that greatness was within his reach”.

Stone’s response was that the film attempted to gain “a fuller understanding of the life and career of Richard Nixon — the good and the bad, the triumphs and the tragedies, and the legacy he left his nation and the world”. Interestingly Stone also suggests the film should be seen as a basis to start “reading, to start investigating on your own”.

As with JFK, the film was recognised come awards’ season, with four Oscar nominations (but no wins).

So what can we take from all this? Well, with Nixon, Stone adopted a highly effective way to present history on screen. Instead of saying ‘this is what happened’, the films says ‘this is how Nixon remembered it happening’. Research and historical accuracy notwithstanding, subjectivity is a hard argument to counter. (Quotes and references)

Several years later, Stone would round out his presidential trilogy with the acerbic W (2008). Rather than taking a balanced and considered approach to the life and times of George W Bush, the film took an irreverent and dismissive look at the president. Also, unlike the subject of Stone’s two previous presidential subjects, Bush was still in office when the film came out.

Stone is one of those filmmakers that courts controversy, both in his choice of subject and his treatment of those subjects. His films are bold, polarizing and designed to provoke a reaction. He seems to be at once at odds with and embraced by Hollywood. He’s an outsider, but one that makes films that people want to watch. For a filmmaker, that’s not a bad position to be in.

Next up for Stone is a biopic of CIA employee Edward Snowden, who leaked thousands of classified documents to the press. It’s a good bet the film will be the subject of much debate.

In the next issue, we begin a short series on Italian neo-realism.

Issue 10 of RSL is out on 28 September.

Additional references:
Hesling, W, ‘Oliver Stone’s Nixon: The Rise and Fall of a Political Gangster’, pp. 179-198 in Rosenstone, R and Parvulescu, C, (Eds) A Companion to the Historical Film, Wiley-Blackwell: Malden (2013)