Nixon (United States, 1995)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

It's always a tricky proposition to make a motion picture based on recent history -- and the more public the episode, the more difficult it is for the film maker to balance drama with accuracy. This is especially true when that film maker is Oliver Stone, a director known more for self-aggrandizement than for the thoughtful handling of difficult issues. Under Stone, JFK turned into a three-hour paranoid ordeal with a conspiracy theory ten times less plausible than the Warren Commission's "one bullet" hypothesis. Natural Born Killers became a sickening display of indulgent ego-stroking.

It's entirely because of Stone's reputation that the even-handedness of Nixon is such a surprise. While not an unassailable portrait of the late president, this movie at least attempts to present Nixon as a human being, with all the failings and greatness inherent in a man of his stature. Nixon is portrayed an neither demonic nor angelic. This is a rare occasion where Stone's script is more concerned with executing a character study than pushing a political agenda. The film even ends with a touching tribute culled from Nixon's funeral last year.

That's not to say that Stone has stuck entirely to the historical record. Unwilling to abandon conspiracy theories, the director comes up with a rather ridiculous connection between Nixon and JFK's assassins. The man linking the title character to November 22, 1963 is a rich Texas oil magnate, played by none other than Larry Hagman. While his name isn't J.R. Ewing, the similarities are too obvious to ignore. One wonders if Stone didn't include this bit just to incite controversy and raise a few eyebrows.

Nixon is not a simple regurgitation of historical events. In fact, history is used primarily as the backdrop against which this character study takes place. Less a biography than an impressionist's vision, the film may disappoint those expecting a vitriolic attack on someone who is surely not among Stone's heroes. But the lead personae, as realized by Anthony Hopkins, isn't reduced to an unthinking, unfeeling caricature. While Nixon is depicted as a paranoid, borderline-megalomaniac, he's also shown to have deep moral convictions, a strong sense of loyalty, and a love of his country. The drama plays out in a Shakespearean fashion, with Nixon's tragic flaw of hubris clearly in evidence. Hopkins is not heavily made up -- and therefore doesn't really look like his character -- but his mannerisms are perfect and he is allowed a full range of facial expressions (unlike Robert Duvall in Stalin). Hopkins does far more with acting than fake jowls could ever accomplish.

The film's structure is disjointed, especially during the first hour, as the narrative skips back and forth through time from Watergate to 1960 to the 1920s and 30s. Stone is giving us a snapshot of Nixon's life, but it comes in such a random and haphazard fashion that it dims the dramatic impact and dilutes early character development. It's not until the film's second hour, as Nixon faces the dilemma of how to end the Vietnam War, that Hopkins' character starts to click.

Stone's penchant for bizarre cinematography damages the film more often than not. Many of the odd camera angles, film stock switches, and surrealistic superimposed backdrops are distracting rather than effective. Unfortunately, this has become one of Stone's trademarks; he seems unable to make a film without making some kind of statement to the effect of: "Look at me! I'm an artist!" Nixon would have been better focused without such grandstanding.

There are several memorable scenes in Nixon and these, along with Hopkins' outstanding portrayal, keep the viewer engaged. One takes place at the Lincoln Memorial, where Nixon faces a group of student protesters and tries to explain why he can't stop the Vietnam War. Another is a confrontation between the President and his wife (Joan Allen) as his whole life goes up in smoke. Then there's a moment in the White House where Nixon and Kissinger (Paul Sorvino) pray as the President prepares to offer his resignation. And, throughout the whole film, there's Nixon's ongoing competition with JFK, his most bitter foe in life and death.

Nixon really doesn't offer any surprising insights, nor does it break new ground for the director. This is a dynamic -- if flawed -- look at the man who, for better and for worse, changed America's place in the world and its perception of itself. There are few who do not have an opinion of Nixon. In this motion picture, Oliver Stone presents his vision of the forces that drove and motivated the late President. And, factual or not, there's no denying that Nixon has moments when it is nothing short of compelling.

Nixon (United States, 1995)

Run Time: 3:10
U.S. Release Date: 1995-12-20
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1