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Playhouse Presents: Nixon’s The One (Review)

I can’t help but feel just a little bit disappointed by Nixon’s the One. Sky Arts have been producing a series of television plays as part of Playhouse Presents bringing together a wealth of talent including Emma Thompson, Richard E. Grant, Tom Jones, David Tennant, John Hurt, Stellan Skarsgård, Stephen Fry and Olivia Williams among others. Nixon’s the One, the third in the series of ten plays, caught my eye because it was a re-enactment of various exerts from Nixon’s infamous White House tapes, brought to life by a talented cast. While the approach is fascinating and Harry Shearer makes a convincing Nixon beneath far too much make-up, the play is simply too short to capture any real portrait of America’s most controversial President. It drops some interesting insights, but doesn’t have enough room to expand or develop them beyond what we already knew of Nixon.

Just dossier-ing around…

To be fair, Nixon is a character who has been examined and picked apart and deconstructed countless times in popular culture. Everybody is familiar with the stories about the leader, and it seems that every once in a while another shocking revelation will be publicised from his tape recordings, or another television show or film will make reference to the character as a watch-word for sleaze or corruption. It’s easy to get carried away with Nixon. Not only do his actions in office leave him open to parody as a morally bankrupt individual, but his appearance and his distinctive accent make him easy to mock. Even as somebody who adores some of the more brazen pop culture iterations of the character (for example, his role in Futurama), I’ll concede that it’s easy to lose track of the man himself in the middle of all this.

So Nixon’s the One seems conceptually fascinating. There will be no exaggeration, no excessive dramatic liberties. The script adheres to the tapes that have been released, copying the dialogue of those involved word-for-word. Even the more sympathetic adaptations of the President’s life find it difficult to resist the lure of the urban mythology around the figure. The best of them, Oliver Stone’s Nixon, couldn’t resist adding a scene documenting the apocryphal meeting between Nixon and some anti-war protestors at the Lincoln Monument. Nixon’s the One sticks to the words actually spoken by Nixon, although it is edited for television. The result is a piece that does capture the very strange activities going on in the Oval Office.

Chief among the Nixon adaptations…?

At its best, Nixon’s the One captures moods and moments better than concepts and ideas. The best scene of the half-hour play has Nixon rambling to a bunch of confused lobbyists about the virtue of milk. Off on a tangent about the medical profession, and seeming to deny the validity of cholesterol, we’re treated to the Commander-in-Chief endorsing a glass of milk before bedtime as the perfect cure for insomnia. It’s a surreal tangent, and it gives the impression that Nixon was not a healthy man, indicating the toll that the stresses of office had taken on him. A lot of media rushes to portray Nixon as an outright villain, cackling as he assaulted the fundamental principles of the United States, but there’s almost something sympathetic about his rambling, and his disconnect.

Similarly, there are nice moments of interaction between Nixon and Kissinger, as Kissinger sycophantically tries to shore up Nixon’s pathetically low self-esteem. “No actor in Hollywood could have done that that well,” Nixon assures Kissinger, “not even Ronald Reagan.” Hell, the pair even celebrate something as mundane as the way that Nixon put away his speech when he was finished. It betrays a wonderfully toxic and image-obsessed culture within the Nixon White House, decades before popular culture would lampoon the cycle of image and spin. Henry Goodman makes a wonderfully sniveling Kissinger, playing desperately to his boss’s ego. “Deep down,” he tells Nixon, “they all know that you’re right.”

What are our (Commander-in-)Chief concerns?

Unfortunately, a lot of the rest of Nixon’s the One falls back on the most famous conversations from the tapes, as we get those much-publicised conversations where Nixon reveals himself as a homophobe and racist. “I think that’s why they’re after Billy Graham,” he comments on the inquiries against Republican donator Billy Graham. “It’s the rich Jews!” Planning his second Inaugoration, he bemoans “these black kids” who are “coming in from Washington.”

Of course, the play does suggest that it was a culture of racism, fostered around the President, with his staff joining in as they ramble about minority stereotypes. “The Mexican American is not as good as the Mexican,” Ehrlichman states. At one point, Nixon himself seems to struggle against his very close-minded Quarker origins in trying to understand the changing culture of the seventies. “I don’t mind the homosexuality,” he assures his staff, in a moment that might have began with ‘I’m not a homophobe, but…’

Oval-all, it’s entertaining, if a little short…

He claims, “I understand it. Nevertheless, goddamn, I don’t think you glorify it on public television, homosexuality, even more than you glorify whores.” Commenting on catching a show featuring homosexuality, he is quick to state the he doesn’t have a problem with homosexuality. “I wasn’t outraged for a moral reason,” he insists. “Most people would be outraged for a moral reason.” Of course, he goes on to blame homosexuality for the decline of Western civilisation (“that’s what happened to Britain”) and to state that he doesn’t like to shake hands with anyone from San Fransisco.

All of this is grand. It’s perfectly valid. After all, he said it. However, it has been publicised to the moon and back. We all know he said it. There’s nothing too revealing here, because it has already been picked apart and explored. If this were even an hour-long drama, it might work better, but half-an-hour is too long to spend dwelling on something that everybody is already intimately familiar with. It just feels like the waste of a perfectly good opportunity, to the point where the ending credits are almost abrupt.

A badge of honour…

In fairness, Harry Shearer is great as Nixon. Sure, his make-up is a little bit too heavy, but the play is shot in such a way that it doesn’t make a difference. There’s a minimum amount of close-ups, as director Ed Bye presents his footage like that taken from a hidden camera. Instead, Shearer relies, remarkably well, on his body language and his voice. Like the better actors to play Nixon, Shearer realises that putting on an excessively silly voice only takes away from a more nuanced portrayal, and instead portrays Nixon in an accessible American accent.

There are other nice touches as well, including a wonderful theme song written and performed by Judith Owens. However, I can’t help but see Nixon’s the One as a wasted opportunity. It has some solid moments and a great leading performance, but it offers too small and too narrow an overview of the character in question.

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