Jan 16, 2020
Nixon At Burger King
I think about Richard Nixon a lot. Not Richard Nixon the career politician, crooked as a Virginia fence, but Richard Nixon the biographical figure, who for his whole life looked doomed, like he was perpetually rounding a corner toward the gallows. Richard Nixon, the man whose parents could not possibly have loved him very much. Richard Nixon whose father owned a gas station in Whittier.
He rose out of poverty in southern California, he reigned with sunken eyes in mythical darkness, and upon his resignation he went into lonesome exile in New Jersey. His biographer called him “a soul in torment.” Nixon’s story is a remarkably rich narrative, yet there is no great film about his life. All extant movies about him are failures, whether because they focus too narrowly on Watergate or because they’re directed by Oliver Stone. This is the kind of guy Elia Kazan made his best movies about, so it’s baffling and shameful that nobody’s done the story justice.
It seems to me the best way to probe Richard Nixon’s emotional and spiritual life would be to entirely discard his political career. A great film could be made about Nixon that doesn’t once mention the botched Kennedy debate or the peace sign resignation photo, or even Watergate. Break the story down to a meditation on the soul of a man who had power and lost it overnight.
In 1986, when he was 73 years old, Richard Nixon went to Burger King. This is more than enough of a framing device for a Nixon film. Hyde Park on Hudson was literally about FDR eating a hot dog at a picnic and that flirted with award buzz, so we’ll be fine.
We only need to cast three characters: Richard Nixon, his secret service agent Mike Endicott, and Burger King employee and New Jersey resident Doreen Johnson. The secret service agent is easy enough to cast. It’s gotta be somebody middle-aged, slightly burned out on his career, who happens to get along with the ex-president and could kill a man if necessary. John Cusack will do. All he has to do is look sad and brooding, stoic but nostalgic in the face of a faded career.
Doreen Johnson is tougher. She’s working class and lives in New Jersey, and my google search for “Bruce Springsteen’s favorite actresses” was entirely fruitless. Let’s just go with Sissy Spacek because she was in Badlands.
As for Nixon, we need someone weathered and beaten who also has comically overblown anger problems. I’m partial to Rip Torn because he broke into that bank and has a side profile pretty similar to Nixon’s, but Gene Hackman would probably work. (Neither of them would do it, and Rip Torn is uninsurable, but never mind that.)
The Times article reads like a sequel to About Schmidt, but to capture Nixon’s paranoia, a bit of The Conversation should be thrown in there too. Extremely minimalist, with virtually no dialogue and an achingly slow pace.
We open on Nixon’s house. Still shots of empty room after empty room. Newspaper clippings, photos with celebrities, and various decaying ephemera. A half-finished bowl of oatmeal and a crossword puzzle on the kitchen table. Lots of grays and browns. No feminine influence in the house. Nixon is dictating his memoir into a cheap microphone at his office desk. He rambles on about a king who was betrayed by cowards, sent into the desert and stripped of his name. He repeats himself, gets frustrated, and throws his coffee cup against the wall.
His secret service agent, Mike Endicott, enters, knowing Nixon is probably a suicide risk. “Mike, this is bullshit and I’m bullshit. Now, you wouldn’t read a memoir by a man with a legacy of bullshit, would you?”
Nixon heads to his piano, and starts playing a slow variant of his original composition he performed on TV in the ‘60s. (This is the only music in the film, tweaked depending on emotional need. Most versions will be solo piano, but there will be a Kevin Shields-y version for dream sequences.)
In Nixon’s recurring dream, he is again surrounded by cameras and journalists, and he is very happy to have the attention and power, but Deep Throat is in the background, distracting reporters and taking his spotlight away. Then all the reporters vanish into smoke and Nixon stands on a vast patch of concrete that stretches to the horizon.
Mike knows Nixon needs encouragement to keep his mental state from further deteriorating, so he makes up a story. Random House wants the memoirs in three weeks and they’re guaranteeing a New Yorker spread. Suddenly the dreams get less paranoid. He shakes hands with Deep Throat and they reconcile. Over the next 30 minutes, the book gets nearly finished, except for the ending.
But one morning, Mike shows up with groceries and the house is too quiet. He wanders through all the rooms, his panic mounting. He finds Nixon on the back porch with a gun in his hand.
Richard Nixon speeds along the coast, bloodied and torn up, smoking his pipe as angrily as one can smoke a pipe and thinking about the dream, with the lights and the reporters. It’s the first time he’s left his house all year. He pulls into a Burger King parking lot.
Doreen, the store’s hard-living manager, calls the Associated Press from her office. “You won’t believe who left his house.” Nixon sits at a booth, wishing he was dead. He eats his burger and fries. Then the reporters show up, and a crowd of admirers too. Suddenly the Burger King is a Billy Wilder/David Lynch dreamscape. The Burger King sprawls out and becomes infinite and there are thousands of people there.
Children run to see him. All his high school friends are there. His wife is there. His dog is there. The camera swirls around in soft-focus as Nixon bathes in adulation and feels complete again. The camera cuts rapidly between Burger King and him playing piano and his childhood in Whittier as his life flashes before him and winds down. He poses for pictures and laughs and replicates the peace sign photo for fans. People start chanting “NIXON’S OUR MAN!” and carry him triumphantly to the outside table so that he may rest.
He sits outside for hours, content that his life’s work is now complete, thanks to Burger King.