In 1991, Hamburg was an aide to Rep. Lee Hamilton (D-Ind.) and a wonk obsessed with the JFK assassination. Following the release of Stone’s film JFK that same year, there was a public clamor to open the files of the House Select Committee on Assassinations, and Hamilton, prodded by his young aide, was at its head. During the course of his work on the project, Hamburg became acquainted with Stone, and a short time later, penned a star-struck letter to the director offering his services on future film projects. To Hamburg’s surprise, Stone accepted, and he was off to Tinseltown.
The time during which Hamburg worked for Stone was a tumultuous one for the controversial director, characterized by a series of forgettable movies (U-Turn, Any Given Sunday) and a much-publicized substance-abuse problem. JFK, Nixon, Oliver Stone and Me is ostensibly a record of this period, the decline and fall of Oliver Stone as told by his man Friday. Hamburg naturally places himself at the center of the narrative and presents himself as a latter-day Mr. Smith, adrift in a sea of venal Hollywood sharks and second-handers. Whether or not it’s a put-on, Hamburg certainly comes across as the prototypical rube: nave, dependable, earnest to a fault.
But, as odysseys go, Hamburg’s is an especially uninteresting one. His main accomplishment was shepherding Nixon from script to screen, and while the details of this endeavor are kind of interesting, they’re not enough to sustain an entire book. Beyond the Nixon saga, the book consists mostly of disjointed ramblings about assassination plots. While his friends and family might enjoy these stories, I suspect that most other readers will quickly tire of Hamburg’s pedestrian observations–his bemusement at afternoon-long meetings, his struggles to get a full producer credit, his personality conflicts with Stone and his hangers-on.
Hamburg does spend a decent amount of space discussing Oliver Stone and the movie business in general, and he tries to make the insights he offers in these parts seem fresh and relevant. But what new insights, really, does Hamburg present? That Oliver Stone is a dope? Anyone who’s seen him on “Celebrity Jeopardy!” already knows that. That most Hollywood films are geared towards 14-year-old boys? A glance at the movie listings in any newspaper will confirm that. Aside from that, Hamburg is apparently consumed with an almost pathological dislike of a producer named Dan Halsted, whom Hamburg invariably refers to as “Danny the Weasel.” Had Hamburg spent half as much time analyzing the roots of the Washington-Hollywood nexus as he spent trashing Danny the Weasel, his book might have lived up to its promise.
But Hamburg’s book is worse than boring. It’s irrelevant. The modern growth of the so-called Washington-Hollywood connection is an interesting phenomenon, and one that warrants serious analysis. Politicians and entertainers both live their lives in the public eye, and it’s only natural that they would feel some sort of kinship. As the line between the real and the hyperreal continues to blur in this age of around-the-clock media coverage, this mutual fascination will undoubtedly grow even stronger. An insider’s view of this–one Hamburg would have been well-equipped to offer–would have made for a fascinating, useful book. As it stands, though, JFK, Nixon, Oliver Stone, and Me is a mere vanity project, a gossipy, superficial screed more concerned with personalities than issues–ironically, much like the Hollywood culture that Hamburg claims to disdain.