Touchstone Pictures // 1995 // 212 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // August 19th, 2008
He changed the world, but lost a nation.
"I was born to do this."
He was a troubled man who had a rough childhood. In his young years, he lost his oldest and youngest brother to sickness. His career in politics was a series of ups and downs. He was Vice-President under Dwight D. Eisenhower but lost a tough presidential campaign to John F. Kennedy. He would later become President of the United States, but would eventually be forced to resign from the office due to his participation in the famous Watergate scandal. This is the story of the life and times of President Richard M. Nixon, as told by the infamous Oliver Stone.
A lot of people dislike Oliver Stone, especially these days. The director's trademarks have a tendency to get on people's nerves. They dislike his flashy, hyperactive visual style. They dislike the way that he makes his long films even longer when they hit DVD. They dislike his historically troubled conspiracy theories that have worked their way into so many of his films. They dislike the way he uses all the emotional subtlety of a sledgehammer. They dislike the director's overwhelming sense of self-importance. I tend to agree with these sentiments more often than not. All of these problems are on full display in Stone's 1995 biopic about one of America's most controversial presidents, Nixon. For some strange reason, Nixon still manages to be a sensational film.
Let's get one thing straight right at the beginning: Nixon is not good history. The film more or less admits as much at the very beginning, confessing that it includes a lot of speculation and theories. This is not a film that should be shown in classrooms to students attempting to learn more about Nixon. However, it is a very good drama and a crackling piece of conspiratorial entertainment. Some would claim that a film about an important historical figure has a responsibility to be historically accurate. I would claim that history books about an important historical figure have a responsibility to be historically accurate. Films have a responsibility to be good films.
At first the idea of Welsh actor Anthony Hopkins (Shadowlands) playing Richard Nixon seems to be a particularly unusual one. Hopkins doesn't look much like Nixon, and he doesn't really sound much like Nixon. That doesn't really matter. In this film, he is Nixon. Hopkins is a valuable actor who always manages to fully become whatever character he is playing. In a career full of strong acting roles, this is one of Hopkins' most complex turns. Here he incorporates some of the feverish paranoia of Phillip Baker Hall's memorable turn in Secret Honor, but overall the performance (and the film) is a little more tender and sympathetic. Hopkins paints Nixon as a sad and unhappy man who was simply incapable of properly handling the role of President. He's not an evil genius, just a man who can't handle the pressure of his job. It's about as sympathetic and human a portrait that an honest film about Nixon can be.
The film is non-linear, jumping wildly to different places in Nixon's life. It's a long montage of biographical information, famous moments in Nixon's life, and speculative guesswork that fills the gaps. One minute we're having a black-and-white flashback to Nixon's childhood, another moment Nixon is praying with Henry Kissinger. This technique actually makes the 212-minute running time work. We're not being dragged along an endless timeline; we're just jumping all over the place and putting pieces together. Stone keeps the scenes consistently compelling and pulls out all kinds of visual tricks and source footage to keep the energy level high.
There are many interesting supporting performances in this movie. It would take too long to list them all, but a few in particular stand out. Joan Allen's (The Ice Storm) performance as Pat Nixon is yet another one of her masterful turns as a frigid wife harboring deep-rooted feelings. Paul Sorvino (The Cooler) is spot-on as Henry Kissinger and has several memorable scenes here. Filling in a wide variety of roles as Nixon's famous friends and foes are the likes of James Woods (The Virgin Suicides), Dan Hedaya (Alien: Resurrection), Ed Harris (A History of Violence), Sam Waterston (The Killing Fields), Powers Boothe (Deadwood), David Paymer (Payback), David Hyde Pierce (Frasier), Bob Hoskins (Who Framed Roger Rabbit), and many others. It's a very strong cast, ensuring that no scene in the film features less-than-excellent actors.
The hi-def transfer is solid. Blacks are deep, flesh tones are impressive. Of course a lot of the source footage contains scratches, which is to be expected. The vast majority of the film is clean and sharp. Sound is strong, with the rich score by John Williams (one of the composers' great overlooked efforts) coming through nice and strong.
The extras are mostly ported over from the previous DVD release. There are two audio commentaries by Oliver Stone. The first focuses on the script and on the performances, the second focuses on Stone's historical research. Unfortunately, Stone just can't stay talkative for three hours straight. There are a lot of gaps in both commentaries, though Stone throws out plenty of his odd and interesting tidbits. With some proper planning, Stone probably could have included all the info from both tracks in just one commentary. As it is, I can't really recommend that you spend seven hours of your time with Stone in an attempt to gather up the bits and pieces he slowly tosses out. There's also an hour (yes, a whole hour!) of deleted scenes, each featuring an introduction from Stone. There's some good stuff here, but for some reason this section includes all the scenes that were deleted from the theatrical version of the film. This DVD presents an extended director's cut, which adds 28 minutes of these scenes back into the film. Unless you want to watch these scenes again, keep the "skip" button handy. A 55-minute interview Charlie Rose did with Stone is also included. I don't like Rose quite so much as someone likes James Lipton or Tavis Smiley, but it's a decent interview.
The lone new supplement is a 35-minute documentary called "Beyond Nixon," which is a discussion of the real-life Richard Nixon by a variety of interesting individuals. We hear from college history professors who discuss some of Nixon's controversial actions. Former White House Counsel John Dean shows up to talk about how much he likes the film; columnist Robert Novak shows up to talk about how much he despises the film. Gore Vidal also turns up, offering some of his rather suspect "insight" to the proceedings. Overall, it's an engaging piece. It's also in HD, while the older features are presented in standard-def. The one thing that is sorely missing here is an interview with Anthony Hopkins. All the cast members are absent from the proceedings, but Hopkins is the one that I really wanted to hear something from.
Though I'm willing to forgive a lot of the liberties Stone takes in this film, there are moments when he simply goes too far. There are a few too many scenes speculating on Nixon's secret connections to Fidel Castro and the Bay of Pigs. In these scenes, the characters feel more like vehicles for Stone's theories than historical figures. Some of the broad strokes feel a little tacky from time to time, too...most notably a sequence in which J. Edgar Hoover eats fruit from the mouth of a pool boy. It would be one thing if this were a political satire, but Stone tries to get away with a few things that he should have left alone in this particular film.
Despite its flaws, Nixon is a compelling and well-crafted film that stands as one of Oliver Stone's most successful directorial outings. The strong hi-def transfer makes an upgrade worthwhile for those of you who own the original DVD.
We won't impeach this take on Nixon. Not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Touchstone Pictures
* 2.40:1 Non-Anamorphic (Widescreen)
* TrueHD 5.1 Master Lossless Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 212 Minutes
Release Year: 1995
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* "Beyond Nixon"
* Deleted Scenes Introduced by Oliver Stone
* "Charlie Rose Interviews Oliver Stone"
* Two Audio Commentaries w/Oliver Stone
* DVD Verdict Audio Interview with Oliver Stone