“Malcolm X,” directed by Spike Lee

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By Ray Sawhill

With his underslung jaw, his 6’4″ lean-and-hungry build, and the fury in his eyes, the real Malcolm X was unquestionably a star. He had a triumphant, gritty voice and worked a crowd close-in, relishing the tumult. He may not always have made a lot of sense, but you could see what delighted blacks and frightened whites; on a stage, he was an angry, defiant turn-on.

Alas, Denzel Washington, who plays the role in Spike Lee’s “Malcolm X,” just isn’t riveting. There’s nothing behind his restraint — he’s in control, but of nothing. He doesn’t get a rapport going with the audiences he speaks to (and Lee makes counterproductive whoopee with the camera and the editing scissors during the speeches). For all the bravado of the opening credits — which play over footage from the videotape of the beating of Rodney King, intercut with an image of an American flag burning until it’s shaped like the “X” on an “X” hat — the movie isn’t fiery. It’s a stolid civics lesson, complete with heavenly choir. There are a few hippity-hop, disjunctive editing tricks, some overhead shots that are “unusual” in a familiar way, and that cross-angled mustard light that Lee and his cinematographer Ernest Dickerson seem to like. But otherwise the filmmaking is mainstream. Only the length (three hours and 21 minutes) and an occasional freedom in the way it ribs blacks suggest the film is anything more than the usual worthy docudrama. The end features little black schoolchildren (first in America, then in South Africa) standing up at their desks, one after the other, to announce, “I’m Malcolm X.” (Study guides and Malcolm X book jackets are being provided to high schools in the 100 largest U.S. urban areas.)

Lee has based the movie almost entirely on “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” which was written by Alex Haley, who completed it after Malcolm X was murdered in 1965. (Lee revised a nearly 20-year-old script by Arnold Perl and James Baldwin.) Among some groups, this “autobiography,” like Malcolm’s speeches, has taken on the aspect of a religious text, with exegesis-happy scholars and fans quarreling about what Malcolm really meant, what his stand really was. Lee has committed himself to putting the material across not as drama but as truth — we’re meant to accept Malcolm’s view of himself reverently, every step of the way. (It’s embellished with a few twists, such as CIA men following Malcolm on his tour of the mid-East, and the FBI tapping his phone.)

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What we’re given is the Malcolm legend. When Malcolm is a child, his family is destroyed by whites. He tailspins off into a life of crime and cheap thrills, bottoming out in jail, where he finds his personal hell and is given the nickname “Satan.” He pulls himself together with the help of the Nation of Islam, which encourages him to blame all his troubles on whites, and he achieves fame giving voice to his race’s rage and demands. After 12 years he becomes disillusioned with the Nation’s leadership and quits the organization; he becomes an ordinary Muslim, visits Mecca and realizes it’s OK to be any color. Wiser and more humble, he’s martyred by the Nation of Islam followers he himself had once fired up.

Spike Lee begins with the street years and proceeds straight ahead, using incidents to trigger off flashbacks to Malcolm’s childhood. He mimics Malcolm’s development in his filmmaking. The street years come with daddy-o colors and sassy crane shots; the prison section is shot in end-of-the-road blue-grays. The Nation of Islam passage has “Godfather”-style dignity and solemnity; the tour of the Holy Lands is a Barbet Schroeder-style spiritual travelogue; the troubled final year is paranoid and portentous (it’s the Oliver Stone section). The flashbacks — which are meant to explain Malcolm’s drives — are “Birth of a Nation” racist nightmares.

“The Autobiography” has push and heat — Malcolm X and Alex Haley tell good tales. But you can sense that the stories have been brightened up, and the lessons Malcolm X draws from them often have little to do with the experiences he describes. As one flamboyant tale follows the next, what comes together is a man’s view of his life as a superhero myth. Essentially, the film is the autobiography, recapped 27 years later, with considerably less flair. Yet Lee obviously wants people to accept his movie as factually accurate.

In the film, as in the book, we’re asked to accept Malcolm’s conversion to the Nation of Islam as a genuine religious experience; Lee gives Malcolm a literal vision. Yet when Malcolm quits the faith on discovering that Elijah Mohammed, the Nation’s leader, is a hypocrite — Elijah has been screwing secretaries while demanding near-celibacy from his followers — he doesn’t spend a single day thinking to himself, “Whew, what a fool I’ve been.” He doesn’t ask himself: “What was it about me that made me so vulnerable to that line of baloney?” At hour one, we’re meant to feel tender awe at the faith, and to be impressed by its insights; at hour three we’re meant to see the faith as corrupt and crazy.

The film doesn’t question Malcolm’s sincerity either; we’re meant to find his disillusionment as genuine as his conversion. He’s always aggressively heading off in some new direction, as certain of this one as he was of the last. It’s such an odd passage when he’s grappling with the fact of Elijah’s hypocrisy that you almost think the message of the movie must be, “Don’t go getting involved with weird religious cults.” Yet when Malcolm’s racial views shift and, after all those 12 years of preaching that the “white man” is the devil, he decides that it doesn’t matter what your skin color is, there’s no indication that he regrets leading his followers astray. Sometimes it seems as if what was inspiring about him was his inconsistency.

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In the film, as in the Malcolm-Haley account, Malcolm’s father was a strong, very dark Marcus Garveyite who was terrorized and finally killed by whites; his mother was a proud, light-colored woman whose family was ripped apart by the social welfare agencies; Malcolm’s schooling came at the hands of abusive whites. But a recent (and very sympathetic) biography, “Malcolm” by Bruce Perry (Station Hill Press), suggests that while Malcolm certainly did suffer from white racism as a child, most of his pain originated in his family.

Malcolm’s father never earned enough money to support a family, and this was a family with 10 kids. He beat them, and beat his wife; he was also, one family friend told Perry, “a natural born whoremonger.” He didn’t die tied to streetcar tracks by white men in black hoods and robes, as the film would have it. Perry shows that he stormed out of the house after an argument, missed his step getting on a streetcar and fell under it.

Malcolm escaped most of his father’s brutality but was beaten by his mother so hard his screaming could be heard by neighbors. (And his family didn’t live in a city apartment; they lived in the country.) Malcolm wasn’t ripped from his mother by welfare workers; with another brother, he tried to get the authorities to send him to reform school (“we heard they had good beds there,” recalls the brother). Malcolm grew up largely among whites; if his enemies and rivals as children were white, so were his playmates and friends. He was teased and put down by some whites; other whites fed him when he was hungry and fought and played alongside him. Light-skinned and red-haired, he also got teased and put down whenever he was in a black neighborhood, where kids called him “Snowflake” and “Eskimo.”

The Malcolm of myth — hard, uncompromising, defiant, manly (yet ever “evolving”) — is fuelled by a rage that is very pure; he stirred up other people’s rage, too, and made them feel exalted by it. (This seems to be what people mean when they say he “gave them hope.”) Malcolm’s late “tolerant” phase wasn’t what it’s sometimes meant to be: what he said was that some whites were OK with him — whites, that is, “who had accepted the religion of Islam.”

In one scene, when Malcolm has become a top leader of the Nation of Islam, a black man is injured by police; Malcolm leads a crowd of blacks to the hospital to insist he get proper treatment. A cop (Peter Boyle) orders him to disperse the crowd; Malcolm resists, then, when it suits him, he makes a tiny sign with his hand, and the mass of people breaks up, the Muslims in their hats and overcoats marching off in perfect order. Denzel Washington shows a minuscule twinkle of satisfaction, and Boyle marvels, “That’s too much power for one man to have.” I understand the joy blacks may feel at seeing a black man fling it right back at “the white man,” and I can enjoy a “kiss my ass, honky” gesture. But the film is too pleased by violence cockily and righteously contained, and that twinkle undercuts the idea we’re mean to have of Malcolm having achieved egolessness.

I found myself interpreting the material differently than we seemed meant to. Early on, Malcolm is invited by a big-time crook to sit across from him at a table in a dark restaurant; the crook winds up taking Malcolm on as a hood-in-training. The scene is balanced by a later one. Malcolm has become a Nation of Islam leader; he’s drinking coffee with assistants in a diner, and an eager young boy who has seen him and wants to join up begs his way to the table. It’s hard to know what’s intended — are we just meant to recognize that Malcolm has found some success? But we’re also left wondering: did Malcolm just want to be a bigwig all along? Did he fail at crime but find his niche in the religion game?

Malcolm’s life suggests that he was trying to create, by himself and in himself, his own idea of a father — his idea of manliness. As a young man — before he joined the Nation of Islam — Malcolm beat a number of his girlfriends (this is not in the film) and chased after white women. (In the film, he has one white girlfriend.) He had a drive to control women that apparently took a new form when he joined the Nation. Moviegoers may find the film’s images of womanly submission really alarming. Malcolm’s wife calls him Dear Heart, and says things like, “Even when you’re not with me, you’re with me.” At one rally, a huge banner hangs from some columns — we’re shown it several times. The text reads, We Must Protect Our Most Valuable Property, Our Women. The men in their gray suits, white shirts and skinny dark ties sit on one side of the stage or the auditorium; the women, in their white robes and shawls, sit on the other. Visually, these ranks of sex-segregated automatons may be effective in suggesting lives cleaned up and set in order. But it’s still hard to take.

You don’t have to accept the myth to find the actual Malcolm a fascinating character. But what we’re being asked to watch is an epic about a Chosen One, and the uninspired moviemaking works against the mythology. Spike Lee will need a lot of help from the press and the Malcolm Industry to keep people talking about his movie. Lee hasn’t found a way to give the movie a present-day bite, either. He offers a Sixties view of things: white equals oppressor equals bad, black equals oppressed equals good. Presented to us in the Nineties — when the press would rather accept the Malcolm myth than get into touchy areas, and a black ad agency is helping Warners create a “groundswell of positive word of mouth” about the film — this view seems preposterous and inadequate.

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Denzel Washington was impressive in Richard Attenborough’s “Cry Freedom” and in “A Soldier’s Story,” directed by the Canadian Norman Jewison. The characters he played had reserves. You could see that they were choosing what they said and what they did from a range of possibilities; when they lashed out, the violence came from a source that you could feel demanded release. The characters Spike Lee creates don’t have inner lives. At one point Norman Jewison was on the verge of making “Malcolm X”; Spike Lee caused a public uproar about the supposed inappropriateness of a non-American white man making the film, and Jewison withdrew from the project. Did Lee think that being black was all he needed to connect with his character and his audience?

In Lee’s first feature, “She’s Gotta Have It,” he showed a relaxed impudence. I saw it with a mostly black audience that laughed at some jokes I didn’t even identify as jokes; they also enjoyed being teased about black traits and habits. But his next film, the college comedy-musical “School Daze,” was a self-conscious, chaotic piece of in-your-faceness, with a joyless central character who, in the final scene, rang the school bell and yelled, right into the camera, at close range, over and over, “Wake up! Wake up!” Spike Lee has been ringing that bell and hollering at the camera ever since. As a self-publicist, he’s in a class with Madonna; they think like magazine editors, pushing hot buttons and goosing you along with graphics and outrageousness even as what they’re packaging gets thinner. Lee has stopped being an entertainer/artist and has become an entrepreneur/haranguer; he has turned himself into a marketer of superficially radical ideas and attitudes. As he has assumed the mantle of savvy firebrand/spokesman for his race, all the shadings (and the humor) have gone out of his filmmaking. Everything is black or white.

©1992 Ray Sawhill. First appeared in The Modern Review.

“A World Apart,” directed by Chris Menges

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By Ray Sawhill

“A World Apart,” set in South Africa, is the first feature directed by the famous cinematographer Chris Menges, and for the most part it’s terrific. Menges worked as a documentarian in South Africa in the early 1960s, and the screenplay, by Shawn Slovo, is semi-autobiographical. The story, set in the early 1960s, concerns a young suburban white girl (Jodhi May), a South African whose parents are anti-apartheid activists. She admires them and values their attitudes but can’t help feeling jealous and angry because the political work absorbs so much of her mother’s care and time. (Her father has left the country to escape imprisonment.)

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Chris Menges directs Jodhi May

Menges can’t resist overstressing that Apartheid is Bad, and he isn’t successful with the character of the mother (Barbara Hershey). Hershey has some dignity, but she can’t seem to help being actressy; she’s always playing out an actress’s idea of a character. But the film manages to be earnestly (and movingly) liberal without being a drag. The feelings have been lived through, and, like the look of the movie, they’re turbulent and abraded. Menges has a distinctive talent for capturing private, unguarded-seeming moments (even as he keeps the public events moving around them) without making a big deal of it. His domestic scenes have a warmth and grace worthy of Mary Cassatt.

Menges seems to like working with women: here, a woman producer and a woman writer; his main actors are women, too. This may have some relation to the way you’re almost never asked to admire what has been set up before you — which is how most first-time directors (male or female) ask an audience to watch their movies. Mostly, you’re with the young girl (and the director), peeping around corners, eavesdropping, noticing things out of the corners of your eyes and wondering if other people notice them too. The film is at its best in catching her tangled feelings, and in its portrayal of her predicament. Jodhi May gives the girl a flickering, tentative incandescence.

©1988 by Ray Sawhill

 

The Rise and Fall of An American President: Nixon in the Arts and the Media

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By Ray Sawhill

The biggest surprise when “Nixon in China” opened in 1987 wasn’t the music: the opera’s composer, John Adams, had been moving away from minimalist purism for some years. It wasn’t the production’s staging, either. By 1987, on-the-cusp culture buffs had already learned to enjoy the mix-and-match irreverence of director Peter Sellars. It wasn’t even the way the opera proposed viewing near-current events as legitimate material for grand opera. “Nixon in China” — now acknowledged as having kicked off a brief trend for “CNN operas” based on topics torn from the news — asserted its authority quickly. It seemed not just funny but natural to be watching a story set in the very recent past, featuring characters with names like Henry Kissinger, Chou En-lai and Madame Mao. After all, what are the creatures who inhabit our media world if not figures of modern myth?

No, what was most startling for the culture-class was the opera’s rounded, even sympathetic portrayal of Richard Nixon. Act I may have begun with a pop-art-style recreation of the famous descent from the Presidential jet in Peking. But things soon moved in more unfamiliar directions. In Act II, Pat Nixon rushes onstage during a performance of a Madame Mao opera to protest the cruelty of some of its characters; Dick follows her and sweetly comforts her. And in Act III, we’re given a Nixon indulging in wistful reflection. Recalling a day during World War II that he thought he wouldn’t survive, he sings, “I felt so weak / With disappointment and relief / Everything seemed larger than life.” Here was something unfamiliar — a Richard Nixon capable of tenderness and dreams.

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We in the audience went into the theater eager to witness an art-gamble: could BAM-style post-modernism deliver an experience that would command our attention on a scale commensurate with grand opera? What we left with was a bonus — a shift in our perceptions of one of the country’s most controversial figures. If Peter Sellars, John Adams and librettist Alice Goodman could let themselves conceive of Richard Nixon as something other than a cartoon ogre, maybe the rest of us could, too.

By 1987, more than a decade had passed since Watergate, Vietnam and the resignation, yet feelings were still raw. One of the main reasons was Nixon himself, who, in his disgrace, hadn’t exactly hidden under a rock. Legendary as a fighter who would never give up, he’d set about rehabilitating himself soon after leaving office. He wrote and wrote, issuing several books, including a nearly 1,200-page-long memoir. The first of his four interviews with British broadcaster David Frost in 1977 was watched by 45 million viewers. He traveled overseas and connected with world leaders. He offered himself up to the media and to other politicians as a wise old foreign-policy expert. He was the public figure we’d never be done with — like it or not.

But Nixon had been a flash point for the country since the U.S. emerged from World War II. The startling aggressiveness of his campaigning had won him early attention, and his conduct during the investigation of the Alger Hiss case had made him a Congressional leader during his first term as a Congressman. His successes highlighted the emergence of the West Coast, and especially California, as a national power-center, confidently asserting itself in the face of the old Northeast.

Nixon never failed to stress his humble origins as the son of a grocer. A huge class of never-before-seen voters — inhabitants of the new suburbs, lower-middle-class and middle-class car owners striving to do even better for themselves — responded. They identified with Nixon’s embattled, Horatio-Alger-versus-the-elites self-image and cheered him on. Within only a few years of setting out on a political career, Richard Nixon became one of the nation’s youngest-ever Vice Presidents.

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Has anyone ever had such an up-and-down career? After the early triumphs, Nixon lost the 1960 Presidential election to JFK by a whisker, then fell to Pat Brown in the 1962 race for California governor. The entire country seemed willing to write him off; ABC entitled a news program about him “The Political Obituary of Richard Nixon.”

Yet by 1965 — with race riots breaking out in many cities and Vietnam emerging as a quagmire — the liberal consensus that had seemed so all-powerful in ’64 was crumbling. Soon, the country was tearing itself apart. Faced with the craziness, most people wanted nothing more than a return to stability. And the unlikely character who rode that wave into the White House in 1968 was back-from-the-dead Richard Nixon — the first Californian ever to occupy the office. In 1972, less than a decade after he’d been declared politically done-with, Nixon was reelected to a second term, winning everywhere but in Massachusetts and the District of Columbia. He may have been “Tricky Dick” to the left, but in one poll 75 percent of the electorate said they found him “more sincere and believable” than George McGovern.

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Then, a mere twenty-one months after this triumph, Nixon himself was gone. In ’72, he’d taken more than 60 percent of the popular vote; by August 1974, 65 percent of the public wanted him impeached. For the right it was a hard-to-digest disgrace. The Library that opened in Yorba Linda in 1990 in honor of his presidency was denied public sponsorship and had to be financed by private subscription.

The bond Nixon had with the white middle class caused the left immense frustration in an era when good liberals defined themselves by their devotion to civil rights. For lefties, raging against Nixon became something like a competitive sport. In 1971, Philip Roth’s political satire “Our Gang” featured a main character named “Trick E. Dixon,” who destroys Copenhagen and has an operation to remove the sweat glands from his upper lip. Gore Vidal, in his 1972 play “An Evening with Richard Nixon,” used Nixon’s own words to portray the president as a man with “no conscious mind.” In 1977, Robert Coover one-upped everyone with “The Public Burning,” in which Nixon has an affair with Communist spy Ethel Rosenberg and is raped by Uncle Sam. “To the cosmopolitan liberals,” writes the historian Rick Perlstein, “hating Richard Nixon … was becoming part and parcel of a political identity.”

For the right, Nixon had always been an ambiguous, even disruptive, figure. Nixon’s politeness, his determination, his endless repetitions of how he’d come from good but humble beginnings — even his physical awkwardness — spoke eloquently to his fans. But Nixon also unnerved many established factions on the right. The Northeast Republican patricians looked down on him as a sweaty, hustling, West Coast prole. His enthusiasm for ambitious government programs and a dynamic foreign policy put him at odds with the heartland small-government/isolationist types known as Taft Republicans.

Culturally, Nixon’s presence was felt in such right-wing works as the popular movie “The Green Berets,” in Bob Hope’s tours, in the hippie-taunting of “Li’l Abner” creator Al Capp, and in the square pop music of the time — from the Carpenters to many defiantly patriotic country songs. His law-and-order presence helped shape one of the key, and most popular, movie forms of the era, the mad-at-the-damn-liberals, vigilante-movie genre epitomized by “Dirty Harry.”

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Philip Baker Hall as Nixon in “Secret Honor”

Robert Altman’s 1984 film about Nixon, “Secret Honor” — from a play by Donald Freed and Arnold Stone, and featuring a great performance by Philip Baker Hall — represented something new. In the film, Nixon is alone in his office, in exile, downing Scotch after Scotch as he dictates what he has told himself will be his last will and testament. Produced for a pittance and using only one set, it’s one of Altman’s best movies — experimental, graceful and shrewd. What was fresh in its presentation of Nixon was that it wasn’t just harsh and funny. It also delivered a fully embodied portrayal of the man; watching the film was like watching a David Levine cartoon take on three-dimensional life. Altman may have been a liberal and a media-biz person, but he’d grown up in the heartland, and he knew his subject’s type: “‘I will be a winner because I was a loser’ — this was Nixon’s credo,” Altman explained. He even admitted that he felt more sympathy for Nixon than he did for Reagan.

But moviegoers, right and left, weren’t ready yet for such a treatment. Though the film was a hit at festivals and appeared in many end-of-the-year best-of lists, it never won a large audience. Altman reported that the only people who gave him a hard time for the film were lefties who thought he’d accorded Nixon too much humanity.

Several years later, though, “Nixon in China” could successfully propose an attitude of reconsideration. We were now ready for it. Perhaps the Nixon years had encompassed more than just Vietnam and Watergate. (Watergate is never even foreshadowed in Adams’s opera.) Opening up diplomatic relations with China was an immense achievement, after all, as well as a real showstopper: here was Nixon, the legendary Red-baiter, making peace with Communists. Librettist Alice Goodman shrewdly captures Nixon observing his achievement: “Though we spoke quietly / The eyes and ears of history / Caught every gesture,” he sings. Nixon had a mental habit of watching himself take his place in history.

Did “Nixon in China” trigger off this new attitude, or was the opera merely one manifestation of its era? And why were so many — on both the right and the left — so unwilling to let go of the man? The legacies of Eisenhower and LBJ were sorted out soon after they left office. The assassination left John F. Kennedy frozen in amber as the glamorous swaggerer cut off in his prime. Nixon, though, has proved to be a loose tooth unlike any other. Perhaps it’s because — despite all his victories, and all the years he spent in office — there remained something unrealized about him. Americans love battlers and strivers, people who won’t quit. So someone like Nixon — a man of potential and drive, a paranoid who wrecked his chances yet never gave up the fight — transfixes us. A failure on an epic scale, he’s the kind of outsized “He had so much going for him” case that irks and fascinates Americans. How can such a figure ever be nailed down?

Whatever the case, the success of “Nixon in China” seemed to free others to venture out of over-familiar partisan ruts. New thoughts were being entertained. Perhaps Nixon had been an effective President, and not in entirely awful ways. The Environmental Protection Agency … the SALT agreements … the “triangular diplomacy” that his visit to Peking was part of … was it a terrible record? In 1988, historian Francis Russell, while allowing that there is indeed “a repellent quality to Richard Nixon,” argued that Nixon was our most underrated President. Liberal columnist Tom Wicker — during Nixon’s Presidency a staunch critic — pointedly entitled his 1991 book about Nixon “One of Us” and admitted candidly to one interviewer that it was “more favorable to Richard Nixon than some people would wish for it to be.”

By the time of his death, in 1994, Richard Nixon was occupying center stage in real life once again. The praise and nostalgia got so thick that Nixon biographer Stephen Ambrose, observing the occasion as a commentator for ABC, marveled, “To everyone’s amazement, except his, he’s our beloved elder statesman.”

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Anthony Hopkins in “Nixon”

The following year, a more modern kind of monumental recognition came Nixon’s way — an Oliver Stone movie. With his knack for exploiting hot-button topics and his eagerness to write his own version of recent history — the director had already put his touch on Vietnam, JFK and Wall Street — Stone now settled on Nixon. This time, though, he chose to forgo his usual fevered-madman treatment. It’s a dignified movie, made with full Greek-tragedy solemnity. Perhaps this was because Stone (like many boomers) saw some of his own father in Nixon and found that moving. In any case, the director dedicated the film to the memory of his father.

The film is a long, ponderous watch, as well as monotonously overemphatic in the Stone way. “He’s the darkness, reaching out for the darkness,” E. Howard Hunt tells John Dean about Nixon, in case you hadn’t noticed the way that Stone has Nixon literally inhabiting a Rembrandt/Godfather-esque darkness. And how convincing a Nixon did Anthony Hopkins make? Quivering with unease and anxiety, pulling his facial muscles around to convey the idea that Nixon was both puppet master and his own puppet, Hopkins didn’t even try to capture Nixon’s confidence, his drive or his victory-lust. (Watching old tapes of Nixon, I was struck by how much he loved campaigning and how happy he was when connecting with a crowd.)

The film nonetheless delivers an intelligent and plausible — and very un-cartoonish — Nixon. Here’s a man who isn’t just obsessed with greatness in others; he came very close to greatness himself. Where Altman and Hall gave us a small-town go-getter who was out of his depth as President — someone who had always been so eager to succeed that he never developed a central core of his own — Stone and Hopkins’s Nixon is a driven, skillful grownup, brilliant in many ways and unquestionably a master politician, but crippled by inhibitions, as well as prone to projections and paranoia.

In the years since, treatments of Nixon have become even more variegated. A young woman named Monica Crowley, who had worked for Nixon during his final years in Saddle River, New Jersey, brought out a memoir in 1996 of her time with Nixon that included long passages in his voice. Her Nixon comes across as brilliant, thoughtful, vulnerable — and unexpectedly kind on a personal level. Unable to let Nixon (or his rage at him) go, Philip Roth launched another anti-Nixon attack in his 1998 novel “I Married a Communist.” Zack Snyder’s 2009 film of Alan Moore’s graphic novel “Watchmen” uses Nixon as an icon of looming fascism.

But the more resonant works in recent years about Nixon have tended to be many-faceted ones. Margaret Macmillan’s 2007 “Nixon and Mao” shifts around between points of view and leaves you in no doubt about what an impressive bit of diplomatic engineering the real-life subject of “Nixon in China” was. In “Watergate in American Memory” (1992), sociologist Michael Schudson makes the case that even Watergate is no easily-encapsulated phenomenon. For some it was a scandal, for others a constitutional crisis, while for a third set it was simply politics as usual. Cultural historian Daniel Frick’s “Reinventing Richard Nixon” is a cool survey of the Nixon stories, images and iconography that have flowed past us through the decades, from campaign posters to plays to New Yorker cartoons to the gift shop at the Nixon Library.

Perhaps the most magisterial reconsideration of the era is historian Rick Perlstein’s 2008 “Nixonland.” In it, Perlstein proposes Nixon as the crucial politician of the 1965–’74 era — the figure who most embodies and sums up those turbulent times. For Perlstein, it’s important to understand Nixon as a “brilliant and tormented” man who struggled “to forge a public language that promised mastery of the strange new angers, anxieties, and resentments wracking the nation in the 1960s.”

For oldies, it’s a bit of a shock to realize that one of the country’s most august authorities on the era was barely a child himself when Nixon was actually in office. But youth can confer virtues; although a left-liberal himself, Perlstein has a perspective that those of us who were around at the time can’t achieve. He doesn’t, for example, flinch from suggesting that the left’s fury kept them from understanding Nixon and his fans. “There was a kind of dehumanization going on, on the left,” he told one interviewer.

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Frank Langella in “Frost/Nixon”

The most recent major pop-culture portrayal of Nixon is Ron Howard’s 2008 movie “Frost/Nixon,” adapted by Peter Morgan from his own play about the 1977 Frost–Nixon interviews. The movie — genuinely thoughtful if, perhaps, surprisingly square — generates a lot of suspense, as well as a lot of sympathy for both its protagonists. We spend the movie watching the two contrasting characters joust — the overeager Frost trying to pull off a media coup and establish his personal bona fides as a journalist of substance, the cagey Nixon eager both for the money and to present his own version of events. But the main effect of the movie is to humanize Nixon, who by the end feels almost like an old, if slightly sketchy, friend. Frank Langella’s performance as Nixon goes much deeper than a mere impersonation of the man; it earned Langella an Oscar nomination. What better proof could there be that Nixon — no matter whether you take him as villain or hero, victim or creep — has now been accepted as one of our most enduring national characters? In the year before “Frost/Nixon” was released, the Nixon Library was incorporated into the National Archives and Records Administration, there to take its place next to all of our other Presidential libraries.

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At Nixon’s funeral in Yorba Linda

At Nixon’s funeral, Bob Dole proclaimed post-World War II America “the age of Nixon.” That’s a judgment that’s very hard to argue with where popular culture goes. What other president has left such a sizable legacy of iconic moments and images? Can we summon up more than half a dozen images of JFK, as popular as he remains? Does Ike, despite being a two-term President of fairly recent vintage, qualify as a pop-culture figure at all? For sheer quantity of memorable images and moments — from the triumph in China to the V-for-Victory gesture, from “I am not a crook” and “the silent majority” to the Checkers speech, from the farewell wave before the helicopter to the way we still append the suffix “-gate” to any and all scandals — Nixon is unmatchable.

If there’s no longer any doubt about “Nixon in China”‘s artistic stature, the opera’s revival at the Met raises an interesting question — namely: What will the audience make of Nixon now? My hunch is that the Nixon era has been sufficiently sifted through for the moment, and that the discussion will now move on to Nixon the man. Though the facts of his life are well known, he has always been an enigma, a labyrinth beckoning friends and enemies alike to lose themselves in his mind’s twists and paradoxes. Twenty-three years after “Nixon in China” opened, and nearly seventeen years after the man’s death, we aren’t yet done with Nixon — and he isn’t yet done with us.

©2011 by Ray Sawhill. First appeared in Opera News.

“Monday’s Warriors” by Maurice Shadbolt

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By Ray Sawhill

The action in “Monday’s Warriors” (Godine), Maurice Shadbolt’s new novel, has a roughriding excitement, and the language is sharp — there are no ominous premonitions or nameless dreads. This crackling Conradian adventure yarn is based on a true story. Kimball Bent, an American conscript in the British Army in New Zealand, deserts, and talks the Maori who find him into sparing his life. It’s the late 1800s, and the British have mounted a military campaign to wipe out what remains of Maori resistance. Bent gradually realizes that he hasn’t entered an inchoate, savage world — he’s entered a culture in disarray. The Maori are at odds with each other over how to deal with the whites.

When the English, determined to teach the Maori a lesson, crush one of their peaceful villages, Titoko, the village elder, who has been a spokesman for peace, consults the ancient war gods and talks several tribes into reinstating the old customs and going on the attack. The body of the novel concerns this war, one of the last Maori uprisings against their invaders. As Titoko wins battles, more and more Maori join up, and he grows close to Bent, whose realistic yet detached viewpoint he values. The Maori use the Anglos’ fearfulness against them; essentially, Titoko suckers the English into defeating themselves.

Is Titoko having a lucky streak, or has he really summoned the ancestral magic? Or is he just futilely acting out what history demands? Bent, the American, provides the reader with an opening onto a world of Maori ambivalence. Whipped and out-smarted, the settlers demonize Bent, convinced the Maori couldn’t outfight and outthink Her Majesty’s troops without some kind of Caucasian help.

Maurice Shadbolt is almost entirely unknown in America, although he has written over a dozen books. “Monday’s Warriors” is his first to be published in this country since the defiant, supercharged 1987 “Season of the Jew,” one of the least-noticed, least-discussed major novels in recent years; still available in paperback, it, too, concerns the Army and the Maori in the 19th century. The two novels are each complete, self-contained works, yet are also fine companion pieces.

They’re also very funny. Is there something about the Maori — their mocking humor and ferocity, perhaps, and their apparent invulnerability to sentimentality — that leads to treatment of their tragedy as black comedy? In both of these daring epics, the conversations and faceoffs have the rapidfire wit and formality of a high level karate match — and Shadbolt never tries to glamorize his terseness or style. The scenes of slaughter, and the evocation of the New Zealand landscape, have an Elizabethan unruliness and splendor; the author suggests a mystical component without dragging the stories down. If we’re drawn to marvel at the senseless trouble people cause themselves and each other, Shadbolt leaves us on our own to do it. He sets us down in the mistrust and beauty and keeps the dramatic tension keyed way up. Readers may feel that at its best Shadbolt’s work outdoes Hemingway.

© 1992 by Ray Sawhill.

“The Doubter’s Companion” by John Ralston Saul

saul

By Ray Sawhill

The Canadian writer John Ralston Saul is an Enlightenment-style provocateur, a cosmopolitan anti-ideologue. Although not a household name in the United States, he’s a considerable figure in Canada and Europe, where his books — “Voltaire’s Bastards” (1992) is his best-known work here — are often best sellers. His new “The Doubter’s Companion” (Free Press) is an eccentric winner — a highly personal dictionary that’s really a compilation of short essays on topics from Air Conditioning to Zealot. He writes with vigor and thunder, firing off epigrams and bons mots. Deconstruction is “a school of light comedy,” orgasm “a workmanlike replacement for a religious experience.”

Readers are most likely to enjoy “The Doubter’s Companion” by opening it at random and following the highlighted connections. The ride almost always yields surprises. In an entry on Neoconservatives, Saul calls them “the Bolsheviks of the right”; in one on Marxists, he writes that “the only disagreement between the Neoconservatives and Marx is over who wins the battle in the end. This is a small detail.” He doesn’t shy from confrontation, either. “There is no convincing evidence,” he maintains in his entry on Voltaire, “that writers can do their job by being nice.”

There’s a fair amount of verbose harrumphing where there ought to be wit. And Saul — like such other freelance lone rangers as Robert Hughes, Paul Fussell, and Camille Paglia — can occasionally seem oblivious to the pleasures of present-day life. But the book is a remarkably thoroughgoing critique of folly, and the spectacle of Saul blasting away at the conventional wisdom of left and right alike has, in intellectual terms, something like the kick of Kurosawa’s “Yojimbo.” Saul delivers the pleasures of a good argument.

© 1994 by Newsweek, Inc. Reproduced by permission.

“Respect: An Exploration” by Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot

sara

By Ray Sawhill

Despite its title, Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot’s new book, “Respect: An Exploration” (Perseus), isn’t an exploration of the meaning of the word “respect,” and it isn’t a William Bennett-like piece of virtue-advocacy either. Instead, it’s a collection of profiles of people who are trying in their professional lives to do some good in the world.

The book is held together less by the occasional passage about the role respect has played in her subjects’ work than by the social-science earnestness of Ms. Lawrence-Lightfoot’s tone. Johnye Ballenger is a pediatrician who gives an afternoon a week to caring for poor clients. Jennifer Dohrn runs a “birthing center” (when did women stop giving birth and start “birthing” instead?) in the South Bronx. David Wilkins is a Harvard law professor who tries to avoid “Paper Chase”-style authoritarianism while still helping students learn the skill of “thinking like a lawyer.” We also meet a “hospice caregiver,” a photographer, and a teacher at a suburban school.

Ms. Lawrence-Lightfoot, a professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education and a MacArthur Prize winner, has developed a distinctive way of writing what she calls a “portrait”—a sensitive, even credulous take on a person, delivered partly through that person’s eyes. It’s a therapist’s view of a client, basically.

The profiles whose subjects have the orneriness to cut through Ms. Lawrence-Lightfoot’s overeager empathy are reasonably compelling. But it’s a mind-foggingly solemn work that seems to live in terror of sharp edges and clear distinctions—and not a book for readers convinced that there ought to be a lifetime cap on the number of times an author can use the words “empower” and “healing.”

©1999 by Ray Sawhill. First appeared in The New York Times Book Review.