DOCU-DRAMAS BY AND LARGE MAKE a hash of history. Ambiguity and nuance are routinely sacrificed for dramatic pacing. But like it or not, movies and TV are the only way many Americans learn about the past. So, though purists may squirm, traditional notions of historical accuracy may have to be replaced by a cruder standard: does the film get the basic truth right, even if some (or most) of the facts are wrong?
Oliver Stone's 1991 movie, "JFK," flunked even this test. Stone's apparent thesis, that LBJ, the Pentagon and the CIA somehow conspired to kill President Kennedy, would be laughable if so many people didn't believe it (polls show that half of the country believes that the CIA played a role in killing Kennedy). "Nixon," on the other hand, is a much more credible effort. Richard Nixon was a Shakespearean tragedy. Stone had no need to embellish the drama. For the most part, he sticks to the known record, making good use of the White House tapes of Watergate fame for the dialogue. Made defensive by historians and journalists who derided the inaccuracy of "JFK," Stone has published an annotated script of his historical sources, most of them mainstream biographies and histories of the period, even before the movie arrives on the screen.
Still, Stone can't escape his favorite conspiracy theory. His Nixon is haunted by his supposed role in plots against Fidel Castro in the early 1960s--plots that somehow got out of control and killed John F. Kennedy. This ghost is not the only one spooking Nixon; he suffers in the movie, as he did in real life, from hubris, inner rage and profound insecurity. But his involvement in the assassination plots is made out to be Nixon's darkest secret. It is what Alfred Hitchcock called a "macguffin," a central plot-moving device. "It might as well have been `Rosebud'," Stone told NEWSWEEK, referring to the psychological clue that drove Orson Welles's "Citizen Kane."
In one of the opening scenes of "Nixon," the president is talking to his aides H. R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman, trying to figure out how to cover up White House involvement in the Watergate break-in. Nixon is visibly shaken to learn that one of the White House "plumbers" arrested at the Watergate is E. Howard Hunt. "On the list of horribles, I know what he is," Nixon mutters. In a later scene he explains that Hunt is a former CIA man who worked on the plot to assassinate Fidel Castro. The plot, Nixon says, originated in the Eisenhower White House when Nixon was vice president. The CIA hired the Mafia to kill Castro but as Haldeman later explains to Ehrlichan, "in some crazy way it got turned on Kennedy." Nixon doesn't know exactly why or how Kennedy was killed, but he is obsessed with his own role in creating the original assassination machinery to get Castro -- "Track 2," he calls it ("Track 1" was the CIA's failed invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs). Nixon refers to Track 2 as a "beast" that got out of control. (It is also the name of Stone's production company.) In an early version of Stone's script, Nixon hallucinates about "The Beast," "an image of evil that will recur throughout the film," according to the staging instructions. Mercifully, this operatic touch was dropped from the final film.
The theory that Nixon was obsessed with Track 2 is a provocative one, but there is no strong evidence to support his early knowledge of the CIA's assassination plots. It is possible, as historian Fawn Brodie suggests, that Nixon suffered from some kind of "survivor's guilt" over the deaths of the two Kennedys, whom he envied and resented. But Stone is really reaching to suggest that Nixon had anything at …