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Sometimes you hold enemies to your bosom for so long that you begin to
feel protective of them, and you instinctively want to leap to their defense when you see
them attacked unfairly. The new film Dick is going to make a lot of Baby Boomers
realize that they care about Richard Milhous Nixon more deeply than theyve realized,
and theyre going to resent this rank little upstart of a movie for the
self-satisfied swipes it takes at him.
Betsy (Kirsten Dunst) and Arlene (Michelle Williams) are two
high-school girls in Washington, D.C., who accidentally meet Nixon (Dan Hedaya) during a
field trip to the White House. When Nixon asks them to serve as "the official White
House dog-walkers," the flattered girls dont realize its because they
have evidence linking the White House to the Watergate break-in and that Nixon is trying
to keep them quiet. Given breezy entree to the inner sanctum, they bicker with Liddy and
Haldeman, argue foreign policy with Kissinger (Saul Rubinek, in a small but inspired
performance), and get Brezhnev high on marijuana cookies.
The movie holds the girls out as the invisible
catalysts behind the Nixon administrations most famous episodes; its Little
Big Man in modern Washington. It was they who put tape on the Watergates
basement door, it was they who caused the 18½ minute gap, and so on. Betsy and
Arlene begin as wide-eyed ingenues, scarcely pubescent and stupid in a thoroughgoing way,
but in the course of 18 months they penetrate Nixons facade and (not unnoticeably)
develop into shapely lasses.
The film gets off on the wrong foot and never
recovers. Many of the skits (they are not quite scenes) play like "Saturday Night
Live" material. (Indeed, many of Dicks cast members come from
"SNL" or "Kids in the Hall," its Canadian counterpart.) And for one
long stretch Dick is nothing more than a send-up of All the Presidents Men.
But, as Mel Brooks wasted years of his life proving time and again, film parodies only
work when something more than a movie is at stake. When Bruce McCulloch as Carl Bernstein
flips his longish hair, hes simultaneously gigging 70s cool and Dustin Hoffman
and what passes for virility in movies its funny. But Dick is
rarely that clever. Most of the Presidents Men spoof lifts entire scenes from
the earlier film Ben Bradlee telling the reporters that they dont have the
story nailed down, Betsy taking a paranoid nighttime walk and applies a strained
comic tilt to them. Having run out of ideas, Dick butters up its viewers by tossing
in-jokes to them.
Yet its hard to fathom who Dick was
made for. Its historical references are so specific that few people born after Watergate
will get them (teenagers sit in silence for long portions of the movie), while its witless
sitcom shenanigans should turn off anyone whos old enough to remember the era.
Whenever the movie starts to lose steam, it tries to jump-start itself by dumping on one
of its characters. One of our two views of Pat Nixon (she has no dialogue, and she
wouldnt want any in this movie) shows her lying in bed and snoring loudly while her
husband looks on with disgust. Deprived of real ammunition (apparently Pat Nixon never
hurt a soul in her life), Dick contentedly sneers at her bodily functions. And Pat
is not alone. The film spends a lot of time deriding its characters for snoring, burping,
farting, and scratching their asses, which are things that everyone does occasionally
that is, everyone except director Andrew Fleming and his co-writer, Sheryl Longin,
if their attitude is any indication.
Unapologetic smugness comes naturally to Dicks
creators, and they save their greatest contempt for the title character. God knows that
Richard Nixon himself brought down most of the viciousness he encountered in his lifetime;
few moments in American history offer deeper moral satisfaction than the central event of
August 9, 1974. Nixon, a cynic and hypocrite of the first order, gave us an administration
that was equal parts hubris and karma. When he was still stonewalling from inside the Oval
Office, his very arrogance was justification enough for the old head-shop poster that
showed him being sodomized in a prison cell. But where is the sense either the
common sense or the moral sense in going after someone whos been politically
dead for a quarter of a century (and literally dead for a year or two)? Fleming
couldnt be grinding a personal ax for he was all of 10 years old at the time of the
hearings. The current political scene is teeming with potent symbols of mendacity, so why
are we still kicking Dick Nixon around? Because the 70s happen to be chic right now?
Or is it because Nixons not around to defend himself and few other people will care
After the Nixons, Dan Hedaya is the most
deserving of our sympathy. Hedaya does an impressionistic riff on Nixon thats closer
in spirit to Philip Baker Halls performance in Secret Honor than it is to the
relatively literal impersonation that Anthony Hopkins gave us in Nixon. Hedaya
indulges in none of Nixons jowl-shaking or tremulous finger-pointing; he lets his
perpetually tightened shoulders remind us of who hes supposed to be. And in the
early part of Dick, before Nixon becomes a mere punching-bag, the scenes where he
works his charm on the girls serve as welcome ballast for their synchronized giggles and
chirrups. Hedaya makes Nixon fun, even exciting, to be around.
But by the end of the film Hedaya has no
character to play because Dicks conception of Nixon has shriveled him to a
mere butt for the girls antics. The climax with Nixon taking his final walk
across the White House lawn, Carly Simons "Youre So Vain" booming
away on the soundtrack, and the nubile tootsies wearing hot-pants cut from an American
flag and waving a banner that reads "YOU SUCK DICK" is mindless in so
many ways that it must hold some kind of record.
What we couldnt see during much of
Nixons lifetime was that his story (like that of Lyndon Johnson before him) was a
tragedy. His various faces that were so familiar to us the neutered square, the
laminated salesman, the canting hypocrite, the sweat-logged dissembler were all
monstrous, repellent. He was a pinched and constipated man, uncomfortable in his own body
and averse to being touched, who was driven by his demons into the most visible occupation
in the world. He was a walking projection of our deepest fears; his need to be accepted,
even under false pretenses, was only an exaggerated version of our own. Writers as
different as Tom Wicker and Hunter S. Thompson saw all of this, just as they saw that
Joseph Conrads description of Lord Jim "He was one of us"
applied equally well to Tricky Dick.
We have a lot more to gain from contemplating
Richard Nixon than we do from ridiculing him. But youd never know it from Dick.
- Tom Block