Gives us another look at the life of the ex-president


October 15, 1990|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

"Nixon" is three of the better hours of biography ever offered by public television. Some of the best and brightest talent in non-fiction television is connected with this portrait of former president Richard Nixon, which airs at 8 tonight on MPT (Channels 22 and 67).

The film was produced by Elizabeth Deane, from "Vietnam: A Television History," and written by Geoffrey Ward, one of the co-authors of Ken Burns' "The Civil War." Burns himself is listed as senior creative consultant. "Nixon" uses the same structure as "The Civil War" -- breaking the film into acts and the acts into manageable segments, each introduced by a title that focuses viewer attention on a single theme or idea.

What makes this such important television is that with Nixon the filmmakers have a subject worthy of their great talents and our serious consideration. The filmmakers argue that Nixon may be the most important figure in post-War America. They are right.

In the last year alone, there have been five books on Nixon. Nixon's brooding figure looms over our lives like none other during the last 45 years. Nixon is a great figure from Greek tragedy improbably living with us in the down-sized '90s.

Tonight's report uses the language of myth to suggest the stature of Nixon in national consciousness and memory. The three acts are titled: The Quest, Triumph and The Fall. This structure does a great job of making sense of the constant ups and downs and political deaths and rebirths of the many old and new Nixons we have grown up watching on our television screens.

There is one troubling aspect of the structure, though: It is essentially the same one used in ABC's dramatized "The Final Days." The question needs to be asked whether life really does imitate docudrama in Nixon's life as neatly as "Nixon" suggests. But, on the whole, "Nixon" is a splendid piece of history, psycho-history, politics, sociology and biography, worthy of taping and replaying.

There is, for example, an entire secondary drama played out in the faces of Pat Nixon. Watch her face in the many scenes where she is shown with her husband -- from her humiliation onstage during the "Checkers" speech to her radiance during the years when Nixon was out of politics. Watching her alone would make for a rewarding television experience.

"Nixon" is filled with skillful, subtle and wise storytelling. "Nixon" is smart enough to show us ourselves in this saga of post-War America's quintessential self-made man.

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