JFK, NIXON, OLIVER STONE AND ME

An Insider's Journey from

Capitol Hill to Hollywood Hell

By Eric Hamburg

PublicAffairs. 305 pp. $26

As the title suggests, Eric Hamburg's JFK, Nixon, Oliver Stone and Me straddles many realms, juggling theory and fact, history and the present, Washington and Hollywood. If Hamburg is anything, he's a good juggler: He worked as an aide to Sen. John Kerry and Rep. Lee Hamilton, most notably on legislation aimed at opening the files on the John F. Kennedy assassination investigation. Next he relocated to Hollywood to work for the notoriously moody Stone for several years, originating and coproducing "Nixon" and "Any Given Sunday."

His experiences left him with plenty to write about: anecdotes and insider experiences in both Washington and Hollywood, featuring players big and small, from Fidel Castro to Anthony Hopkins. It's easy enough to enjoy the privileges of this backstage pass, and easier still to trust Hamburg's account of events. His concern with the truth, after all, seems to be what drove him in relentless pursuit of the facts behind Kennedy's assassination, and what pushed his interest in making films about historical figures and events. But it's exactly this focus on the facts -- and the facts alone -- that separates policymakers from filmmakers, and separates those with a story from skilled storytellers.

Hamburg introduces his book by explaining what it's not: "It is not a Hollywood gossip column run amok. It is not a dirt-dishing, tell-all tome." Neither is it a biography of Oliver Stone, he explains, nor "a 'revenge' book." Instead, it's "a Hollywood book for political junkies, and a political book for Hollywood junkies." Unfortunately, Hamburg's political experiences are relatively limited, and his insights into Hollywood are naive to the point of being anachronistic.

Upon arriving in Hollywood, he is shocked to find that the town is not populated by the idealistic artists and high-minded civil servants he imagined: "I had hoped that Hollywood would be a more creative, artistic environment. But it was all about money." Hamburg is disappointed to find that Stone is no exception: "I had naively thought that, as an artist and as a committed social activist, he would be above such petty concerns."

Naturally, the full spectrum of my-boss-is-crazy anecdotes is here, and Stone comes out smelling about as bad as any other high-powered subject of an unauthorized biography or tell-all. What's notable is not Stone's behavior but how similar the behaviors of creative, intelligent people in positions of power seem to be -- they sleep around, they drink too much, they say rude things, they're paranoid, they're cheap, they think everyone wants to use them for their money or their power, they talk a lot about who they can and can't trust (justifiably, as it turns out). Each demented or demonic snapshot is palatable enough to an audience raised on the calculated fawning of celebrity puff pieces. But the effect is more archetypal than archival -- plenty of more thorough (and more damning) works have been written on Stone already.

As the book shifts gears between politics and Hollywood, it somehow becomes increasingly difficult to generate interest in either. Missing is a strong, unique voice, outside of a wonkish self-righteousness, which at times can seem downright prudish. Of "The People vs. Larry Flynt," for example, Hamburg writes, "I found it hard to believe that Janet [Yang], who had produced the sensitive drama The Joy Luck Club . . . would want to make a movie about the leading purveyor of gross and disgusting pornography in America." Later, he volunteers his belief that "Natural Born Killers" was "responsible for several copycat killings." Stone was acquitted of wrongful-death charges, but, Hamburg writes, "I'm glad that he was called to account for at least one of the killings, and had to face a trial in a courtroom, where the measure of his responsibility could be sorted out. He won in court, but not in my eyes."

Hamburg's tone of prim superiority suggests that he wasn't merely an outsider in Hollywood but was absurdly and outrageously out of place. This conflict could be used to propel his story forward, yet he reveals very little of his personal life, choosing, instead, to focus on the questionable personal habits of his peers. He mentions in passing that he took the cousin of Stone's assistant to the Oscars; several chapters later, he refers to her as his wife, with no explanation of what's transpired. And, while he documents the loss of control of those around him, he rarely invites us inside his own weaknesses or low moments. He admits only to mistakes that arise from idealism and naivete{acute}, faults that we're naturally expected to recast as admirable traits.

Years later, when Stone is arrested on suspicion of drunk driving and possession of hashish, Hamburg writes a note to his former boss: "It is sad to see what has happened to you. To put it bluntly, you are an addict and an alcoholic." The sting of these words may seem jarringly out of sync in a book that isn't about revenge. But Hamburg explains drily that, while he was "glad" that Stone was arrested, due to his "mixed feelings" about him, he really just wanted Stone to get help.

In the end, Hamburg keeps us at arm's length, concerning himself with the facts, and with issues of bias, rather than delving with honesty into his personal experiences and emotions. After all, taking the risk of being honest, which is fundamental to good storytelling, means taking the risk of revealing one's biases. Without the glue of an honest perspective, though, what might be a compelling memoir amounts to a collection of pages. The irony is that the focus of these pages, and the focus of so much of Hamburg's resentment and consternation, is Stone, a man whose skills -- and weaknesses -- as a filmmaker and storyteller lie in his ability to bring the weight and emotional turmoil of his experiences into his work, infusing his films with the contradictions of his personality, his passions and, therefore, his biases. *

Heather Havrilesky is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles.

Scenes from two Oliver Stone movies: Anthony Hopkins (L) in "Nixon" and Kevin Costner (R) in "JFK"