For about ten years, Oliver Stone enjoyed riding the high horse as America’s greatest renegade filmmaker, a master craftsman who managed to change the way that American society thought about its past. Of course, he fell just as quickly as he ascended. His attempt at a big budgeted epic bombed spectacularly, his documentaries that practically make love to people like Hugo Chavez are ignored, and his films have become increasingly (dare I say it) conservative. Can the king ever reclaim his throne? I doubt it. Stone’s had his say and nothing can take away the respect he once commanded. Besides, he was a master technician and each of his films could be the subject of an interesting film school class.
Nixon was Stone’s last relevant film, and the one that shows all of his previous strengths and his increasingly apparent weaknesses. The film manages to be both awe-inspiring and downright cartoonish in its three and a half hour running time. Hopkins performance is riveting and some of the films most tender moments recall King Lear and his downfall. At those moments showing Nixon’s true conflict, the film shines brightly. But when it moves to a grander scale, it stumbles, turning Nixon into a caricature and the world into some sort of bizarre parallel universe where everyone speaks in dramatic tones and in which historical people are reduced to providing cheap symbolism.
The film is about Nixon’s life and presidency, told in a very non linear way. Nixon (Anthony Hopkins) is born in California to a very religious mother, plays football in college, meets Pat Ryan (Joan Allen), becomes involved in politics and eventually ascends to the presidency in 1968. But his terms in office is marked by controversies, with a war in Vietnam and Watergate. Nixon becomes paranoid that both J. Edgar Hoover (Bob Hoskins), Henry Kissinger (Paul Sorvino) and the Kennedy brothers (themselves) are trying to go against him and that the Vietnam War protests are a giant communist plot. By the end of his presidency, Nixon is a paranoid mess who is dependent on pills and booze.
That synopsis doesn’t really tell much about the film. But then, the film is hard to describe. It actually takes little academic interest in Nixon’s presidency. Yes, it does mention the fact that he ended the Vietnam War and reestablished diplomacy with China, but that’s about it. Nothing about his domestic policy is even mentioned (A little trivia note to the granola crowd – Nixon was the president who created the Environmental Protection Agency and who signed the Endangered Species Act into law). Even Watergate is not explained in-depth. If you are looking for some sort of historical document, then this is not the film you need to watch.
This is the film to watch if you need to change your view on Nixon as a person. After the left-wing lunacy of JFK, I thought that Stone would treat a man like Richard Nixon as public enemy number one. I was wrong. Stone finds much about Nixon’s character worthy of praise, which is certainly a revolutionary look at the official “worst U.S. President ever.” Nixon’s problem was that the system was not able to let him do the great things he wanted to do. Hopkins perfectly embodies Nixon’s mannerisms and tics. He speaks like a man who must always sound important even when he has nothing to say. The (almost certainly invented) scene in which Nixon meets a group of college kids and is put on the spot for his inability to end the Vietnam War quickly. The sympathy is not on the kids (who almost certainly had friends overseas that were needlessly losing their lives). No, it is centered on Nixon, who realizes that his biggest goals in life have amounted to nothing. It also starts his downward spiral, when Nixon dreams himself as the victim. His transformation in the paranoid man that felt bugging political rivals was the best course of action seems almost logical.
There is not enough praise in the world to describe Hopkin’s performance. He doesn’t just nail the famous speaking voice. His face constantly suggests a titanic internal struggle with an air of authority. When he breaks into tears after resigning, it almost seemed like a documentary. It was one of the great performances of the nineties, and is the definitive version of Richard Nixon on film.
But, you have to take the good with the bad, and I cannot go away ignoring the films flaws. First, the Mao scene is terrible in its execution. The scene almost becomes comedy, with Mao cackling like a Saturday Morning Cartoon villain and declaring Nixon to be evil. There are other moments like this, with Breshnev (acrylic text is flashed on the screen randomly) and the interaction with Pat is almost like a soap opera. Hopkins gamely plays these scenes, but they feel beneath the material. Why use such caricatures to make a point, when other scenes manage to do so with great efficiency? They are few and far between, but are the equivalent of an autopsy photo in a vacation slide show when they do pop up.
The film, at its best, is required viewing for everyone – especially presidential hopefuls. But at its worse, Stone’s vision is misguided and downright stupid. There is no need to take a figure as controversial and complex as Nixon and put him in a silly piece of propaganda. Hopkins manages to give a legendary performance, but the film almost cannot keep up with him at its worse moments. Still, the film is an important piece and acts as a farewell from Stone, who seems to realize his time as America’s bad boy filmmaker was up. It serves as a bridge between the parts of his career.