Witcher's latest book analyzes Oliver Stone's Nixon

In the decade since director Oliver Stone released the movie Nixon, negative reviews and faded memories have eroded its place in public consciousness. But in his latest book, Russ Witcher pushes play and analyzes the movie from a new perspective.

In “A Textual Analysis of Movie Director Oliver Stone’s Nixon,” (Edward Mellen, 2004), Witcher contrasts Stone’s portrayal of Nixon against common depictions in previous movies, television programs and historical perceptions. Often caricatured as either “the incarnation of evil or as an oddly comic character worthy of satirizing,” Nixon received a more accurate portrayal from a director who was certainly not an admirer.

“Stone refused to give the typical portrayal of Nixon,” said Witcher. “His view is refreshing and should be appreciated, not as a historically accurate account of Nixon’s life, but as one of the first movies to treat Nixon as the complicated, serious man that he was.”

Though most reviewers panned the movie for its inaccuracies, Witcher contends that the errors in fact and artistic license allowed by Stone should be taken into context and should not take away from the value of how the portrayal of Nixon rings true.

Witcher acknowledges Stone’s historical errors and describes several scenes where the director truncated and combined conversations and events. He catalogs scenes where Stone took license with Nixon’s actual words, sometimes changing place, time and audience for effect. In each case, Witcher points out where, when and to whom Nixon actually said those words, assuring the reader that the misplaced quotes created no harm to the movie’s authenticity.

“This tampering does not dilute the film’s accuracy or its power,” said Witcher. “Stone’s film attempted, at least, to free Nixon’s legacy from the totally evil or bumbling incompetent persona that was in so many previous media portrayals.”

Witcher contends that the biggest flaw within the screenplay is “the strong implication of the CIA killing John F. Kennedy because of his mishandling of the Bay of Pigs operation.” Even Stone referred to it as an “extreme version.”

“It’s absurd to say, as the screenplay does, that Nixon continued the war in Vietnam to score points with the Soviets and Chinese,” said Witcher.

By highlighting several Stone quotes that reveal his thoughts about Nixon, Witcher explains how the movie came to be a proper reflection of the 37th president. For example, he quotes Stone saying, “In the end, it’s tough not to feel some compassion for a guy who just never thought he was good enough to join the establishment, even when he emblemized that very entity.” Stone also remarked, “Nixon made a good soldier, but a bad king.”

“One of the great values of Witcher’s analysis of Stone’s screenplay and the film itself is that Nixon comes across as the complex human being he was,” said Linda Null, a TTU associate professor of English. “His analysis is a significant contribution toward a balanced view of Richard Nixon and the turbulent years of his presidency.”

Witcher takes time to go beyond the movie to explain what others have written about Nixon during the same episodes of his life shown in the film. He points out several paradoxes of Nixon as president. For instance, Nixon didn’t trust the Central Intelligence Agency, considering it too anti-communist, yet he negotiated with communists. Though known for his foreign policy achievements, his domestic policies were often liberal, with the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency, the all-volunteer military and a failed comprehensive health plan.

Witcher says Stone captured the paradoxes by showing the man who could be condescending, yet intimidated by the silver spoon, or who worked to gain the popular vote, yet seemed reclusive and brooding.

“Stone’s point is that a person who seems paranoid may instead be a person who knows more secrets than you,” said Witcher.

Witcher concludes that ultimately Stone accomplished what no other television or movie director was able to do.

“Stone created a film that makes the audience care about the fate of Richard Nixon,” he said.

Witcher received his doctorate in communication from the University of Tennessee in 2000. His dissertation was published in book form and released as “After Watergate: Nixon and the Newsweeklies,” (University Press of America, 2000). He also edited “Articles, Interviews and Book Excerpts (1976-2000) on Richard Nixon’s Legacy” (Edward Mellen, 2003).