Hollywood Pictures // 1995 // 212 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Mike Pinsky (Retired) // December 14th, 2004
"Always remember: Others may hate you. But those who hate you don't win unless you hate them. And then you destroy yourself." -- Richard Nixon (Anthony Hopkins)
Bob Woodward, who ought to know, points out that contemporary American government has lived always in the shadow of Watergate. And so has Oliver Stone, who has in some ways been the voice of the Baby Boom generation, whether we like it or not. More than any other American director, Stone has dived into the political and media consciousness of the Vietnam / Watergate survivors and displayed their mythology on screen. Often it takes the form of a waking nightmare, wherein conspiracies abound (JFK, Wild Palms), power replaces morality (Wall Street), and language (through media) becomes a tool of control (Talk Radio, Natural Born Killers). You would think that Richard Nixon would be the perfect demon for Oliver Stone, an intersection of all nightmares in one seething and bitter little man, an opportunity for pure hysteria.
Then why is it that Nixon remains one of Oliver Stone's best films?
Perhaps Stone sees too much of his father in Richard Nixon: a working class conservative who always envied wealth and power, and courted it while hating himself for doing so. Perhaps Stone sees himself. After all, both he and Nixon tend to see the world in black and white, fight ruthlessly for moral order, and sometimes let their own egos defeat them. Whatever the case, the pieces fall into place in Nixon.
Part of the film's success might be credited to Stone's ingenious casting of Anthony Hopkins as Richard Nixon. If Stone has one consistent strength as a director, it is his fine casting and steady hand with actors, often playing them against type and drawing out complex performances. While Hopkins does not try to duplicate Nixon's appearance, he easily captures the man's stiff mannerisms and searching eyes. This man on screen may not look like Nixon, but he seems to be channeling the soul of the man who created so many versions of "Dick Nixon" that he lost track of his real self.
Anthony Hopkins is so immersed in the role that Stone's cut to the real Nixon abandoning the White House in the final scene is jarring. We suddenly recall that we have been watching fiction: many sides of a man, of which the historical Nixon, whomever he may be, is only another facet of this complex, almost mythic character. More than simply a parade of scenes, Nixon differs from most biopics in that it works very hard to get into its subject's head. Stone is forced to muster sympathy for the monster, to show how Nixon's ruthlessness leads him both to greatness (splitting his Cold War opponents Russia and China and negotiating separately with them). When Stone falters, it is when he allows his own paranoia to get the better of him, concocting morbid scenes of Nixon being manipulated by "the Beast," an evil conspiracy involving J. Edgar Hoover (Bob Hoskins), CIA director Richard Helms (Sam Waterston), and mysterious Texas oilmen (led by Larry Hagman), who seem to be behind -- guess what -- the Kennedy assassination.
But thankfully, Stone spends most of his time focused on Nixon as a man, rather than as a political machine. This, to my mind, is what sets Nixon above Stone's JFK, which gets too caught up in its plot twists and lets Kevin Costner's Jim Garrison become a cipher. Stone also tempers his penchant for rapid editing and mixed film stocks and yokes them to the story, reflecting time periods or psychological states more effectively than the flamboyant Natural Born Killers or the cliché-driven Any Given Sunday. And there is a hell of a lot more psychological insight here than in Alexander.
The importance of Stone's cinematography (with longtime DP Robert Richardson) having been noted, I must with some disappointment comment on Disney's transfer of this DVD. The print, non-anamorphic (should this even be tolerated on a film of this artistic complexity?), is often soft and muddy (especially with bright colors like orange), and black levels are inconsistent, especially in scenes with flickering light. Disney would have been better off spreading this film over the two discs in this "Collector's Edition" so that they could have beefed up the transfer and still included the 5.1 and DTS audio tracks.
Such a move certainly would not have interfered much with the few extras included in this package. There is a theatrical trailer and a five-minute studio puff piece that makes the film sound more melodramatic than it really is. A collection of deleted scenes, each introduced by Stone himself (who also talks for several minutes about the stylistic influences on the film, especially Citizen Kane -- check out the early shot pushing through the White House gate for a glaring example), turns out to be fairly redundant, since most of these scenes have been reintegrated in the "director's cut" presented on the first disc. This "director's cut" runs about twenty minutes longer than the original theatrical version, and adds a few paranoid scenes (most notably Nixon's confrontation with CIA director Helms). There are also two commentary tracks by Stone. The first covers some of the real history behind certain scenes, as well as the usual comments about the actors and stylistic choices, all fairly serviceable. The second track fills in a bit more trivia but contains very long gaps: It largely feels like outtakes. Both tracks contain enough empty spaces that they might have been edited into a single track, especially since you cannot switch on the fly (only from the menu) to cover the silences.
But the best extra, and perhaps the only one worth the time to watch in its entirety, is a thorough and intriguing hour-long interview from The Charlie Rose Show. Rose does not throw softball questions, grilling Stone on the film's accuracy. Stone occasionally seems uncomfortable, but it is to his credit that he does include these tough questions for viewers of this DVD, opening up the debate about not only Nixon's legacy as a statesman, but also Stone's own legacy as a filmmaker.
Perhaps it is best not to think of Stone's Nixon as a document of history, but as a story about a man haunted by his own legacy and the legacies of the office he holds. Nixon always seems shadowed by John Kennedy and Abraham Lincoln. Looking for absolution, he stares up at them, grappling with the notion that they somehow -- especially Kennedy -- are out to get him, even from beyond the grave. Indeed, his bitter complaints about the "theft" of the 1960 election echo our own recent election controversies. But in 1960, the loss is blamed ultimately on Nixon's "personality problem," making us wonder, which is the real Nixon? Even the man himself frequently refers to "Nixon" in the third person as if that were a character he plays, always despised by the press ("They've always hated Nixon") and misunderstood by both friends and enemies.
In the end, Oliver Stone struggles with many Nixons: the monster, the manipulator, the bitter and terrified child always trying to prove himself. A soul in shadows, some thrown at him and some of his own making. A man tormented by his own moral character -- and his inability to be the success he believed his struggles entitled him to be. Nixon's brutally pragmatic father and Quaker mother shaped him into a strongly moral man who was willing to use politics to lie, cheat, and steal in order to create a morally pure world. And Nixon could never understand why no one saw that his ends justified his means.
Nixon allows Oliver Stone to examine the foundations of the Puritan work ethic, the notion that struggle inevitably leads upwards to success, both materialistic and spiritual. Nixon works and fights and fails -- and the higher he rises, the less happy and more bitter he must become. "They think I don't feel, but I feel too much sometimes," he says, still remarking almost dictatorially on his willingness to take any risk, even nuclear war, to "nudge history." He must become the monster that power requires him to be, as success and moral purity scrape each other raw. When Mao Zedong jibes, "You're as evil as I am," we wonder if Nixon truly understands that such evil grew out of what he thought were good intentions. This is where we find pity for American history's great political monster. When a Vietnam War protestor looks into Nixon's eyes in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial, she realizes, "The system won't let you stop it." And long after Nixon has gone, his shadow will still loom over us. He helped create the Beast, the divisive, manipulative creature that plays dirty politics and hides behind a smile and a wave, and he became its most prominent victim.
Review content copyright © 2004 Mike Pinsky; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Hollywood Pictures
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* DTS 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 212 Minutes
Release Year: 1995
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Two Audio Commentaries by Director Oliver Stone
* Deleted Scenes with Director Introductions
* Oliver Stone Interview from The Charlie Rose Show
* Theatrical Trailer
* Wikipedia: Richard Nixon
* Watergate Info