Judge Victor Valdivia was also undone by a third-rate burglary—specifically, the one that landed him in San Quentin.
"He had greatness in his grasp, but he had the defects of his qualities."—Henry Kissinger on Richard Nixon
Director Oliver Stone has never been afraid to court controversy. With JFK, he posited that the U.S. government covered up the truth about the Kennedy assassination. With Salvador, he detailed U.S. complicity in atrocities committed in Central America. Now, with Nixon, he tackles the most scandal-ridden President of the twentieth century and shows a surprising amount of compassion for him. Anyone expecting a one-sided smear job will be surprised to learn that Nixon is a thoughtful and enthralling film that depicts Nixon's complexity much more comprehensively than many would imagine.
Facts of the Case
Richard Nixon (Anthony Hopkins, The Silence of the Lambs) is the thirty-eighth president of the United States and the most powerful and popular President in history up until that time. His poverty stricken childhood in Whittier, California, his relationship with his wife Pat (Joan Allen, Face/Off), and his presidential staffers, including H.R. "Bob" Haldeman (James Woods, Salvador), John Ehrlichman (J.T. Walsh, Breakdown), and John Dean III (David Hyde Pierce, Frasier) are all examined in detail. Nixon faces many ups and downs throughout his political career, emerging triumphant as president and enjoying some remarkable global triumphs. He is then undone when his hubris and paranoia lead him into the debacle of Watergate.
The highest compliment that can be paid to Nixon is that both Nixon's most fervent admirers and detractors have equally attacked the film as biased. Anyone who goes into Nixon with a preconceived notion of who Nixon was will be challenged by a film that conveys Nixon in all of his complexities, one that tries to understand how the very qualities that drove him to become the most powerful leader in the world also led to his destruction.
Indeed, the Nixon that emerges in Nixon is depicted as a man who, for all his immense virtues, is frequently only capable of seeing people as one of two things: instruments to be used for his gain or enemies to be vanquished mercilessly. It's not that he's evil, or even selfish. It's that he has never recovered from the hellish crucible of his childhood: a cold and angry father and an emotionally distant Quaker mother (who refers to her son as "thee" and "thou"), poverty, and two brothers who died young and painfully (one as a child) from tuberculosis. Nixon makes clear that the key to Nixon's personality can be explained by one of the typically brutal sentiments expressed by his father: "What gives life meaning is struggle. When you stop struggling, they've beaten you." Nixon, therefore, sees life as a constant struggle, in which everyone around him is either there to help him or stand in his way. Consequently, though he successfully struggles to escape the bleakness of Whittier and become the president of the United States, he is convinced that he can never stop, even as he reaches the pinnacle of success. In time, his drive hardens him, making him colder and more unforgiving. Eventually, of course, it leads to his downfall.
That depiction is why the criticisms that Nixon is too sympathetic to Nixon are faintly ludicrous. This DVD director's cut (the same one released previously) has several scenes showing Nixon's worst impulses. One crucial one occurs after The New York Times publishes the Pentagon Papers (a series of leaked documents outlining the Democrats' failures in Vietnam). Nixon calls his cabinet in for a meeting and lays out, in a tirade of sheer bile, how he will punish the press and any leakers in his administration. It's hard to argue that this Nixon, dripping with venom against a press that is actually doing his administration a favor, can possibly be considered whitewashed. At the same time, the film gives Nixon his due as a global statesman. Nixon demonstrates how Nixon opened relations with China and used the Vietnam War to drive a rift between China and the U.S.S.R., hastening the fall of Communism. The film also displays Nixon's mastery of politics. There is a reenactment of his 1968 Republican Convention Speech, a brilliant masterpiece of demagoguery. It was Nixon, after all, who began the modern age of divisive politics, cataloguing certain voters as "real" Americans, and the film depicts vividly just how well Nixon could frequently play to people's worst impulses. Though Nixon doesn't really explain Watergate in detail (it assumes viewers already know the basic details of the crime and cover-up), it does show how a minor incident that arose from Nixon's unceasing arrogance and stubbornness metamorphosed into a disaster that destroyed his presidency also because of his unceasing arrogance and stubbornness.
Nixon is impressive in almost every way. Stone's direction is masterful, taking a story that could have been as dull as (in Stone's words) older white guys sitting around talking and making it compelling. Yes, Nixon is sometimes operatic. Any film that uses "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" isn't necessarily going for nuance. It's worth noting, though that Stone's usual visual pyrotechnics are toned down a bit so as not to get in the way of the story, although there are enough to make it visually arresting. The script, co-written by Stone, is impressive, skillfully mixing fact with dramatic licenses (apart from one crucial exception) to tell the story. Stone knows that Nixon's real story is peculiar enough without having to embellish it much.
The acting is also first-rate. Much of Nixon's success lies in Anthony Hopkins' performance. Hopkins doesn't necessarily look like Nixon, and he doesn't really sound like him. What he does do, however, is express the peculiar combination of intellect and awkwardness that defined Nixon. As much as Hopkins' Nixon sounds articulate laying out his political beliefs or attacking his enemies, he sounds just as clumsy when attempting to connect with someone emotionally. Joan Allen's Pat Nixon is the one outsider in the film, the only person who isn't interested in politics or power but in being a partner for her husband. Allen perfectly captures her mixture of gentleness and steel. James Woods flawlessly embodies Haldeman's cold ferocity. Here, Haldeman is depicted as Nixon's enabler, the one staff member who, in his misguided loyalty, too often feeds Nixon's paranoia and stokes his anger. Ehrlichman is given more of a conscience (though in real life, he was just as callous as Haldeman) and Walsh gives him the weight to ask Nixon the tough questions that Nixon should be asking himself. Sorvino has arguably the second-hardest job in the cast, as Kissinger is still a famous figure. Nonetheless, in addition to mimicking his accent and voice, Sorvino also conveys Kissinger's puffed-up egomania. The performances help add to the overall picture, making Nixon a brilliant piece of drama that has more emotional depth than one would expect.
Nixon was previously issued on DVD in a two-disc edition in 2002. The technical aspects of this new edition are mixed. The good news is that the 2.40:1 transfer is finally anamorphic, unlike the previous release, and the image has been cleaned up, with much of the grain and noise from the previous edition absent. The bad news is that the DTS mix from the previous edition is also absent, leaving only the Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround mix. It's an excellent mix, loud and clear, befitting the epic story it tells, but the absence of the DTS mix grates.
Most of the extras from the previous edition have been ported over as well, such as the two commentary tracks, the film's theatrical trailer (4:32), the deleted scenes (58:18), and the episode of Charlie Rose (55:10). The two commentary tracks are a bit irritating. Stone does both by himself, and though he has some interesting thoughts on both the film and the history that inspired it, each track has long gaps and there doesn't seem to be much reason to have split them in two. Both could have been edited together into one knockout track without losing any vital information. Disc Two lists ten deleted scenes (as well as Stone's opening and closing remarks), but only "The Rockefeller Party," "The Jones Ranch Barbecue," "Air Force One," and "Jones Ranch Bull Ring" are actual outtakes. The others have been reinserted into the DVD director's cut of the film and are redundant. The Charlie Rose interview, from 1995, is excellent, and in some ways surpasses either of the commentaries. Rose asks smart questions and gets Stone to explain what Nixon meant to him and what he intended with the film. It's by far one of the best interviews Stone has ever given. Excised from this edition is the 5-minute EPK puff piece included in the last version, but that's hardly a grievous loss.
This edition's sole new extra is "Beyond Nixon" (35:16), a documentary on Nixon and the history of the presidency directed by Stone's son Sean. Containing interviews with Dean, Nixon's lawyer Leonard Garment (played by George Plimpton in the film), various historians, and even the ever loathsome Washington pundit Robert Novak, it's an intelligent piece that addresses the controversies surrounding Nixon, his place with other Presidents, and even the film (not surprisingly, Novak hated it). While it's hard to say if it alone justifies this double dip, it's still a thoughtful companion to the film, and far superior to the EPK fluff it replaces.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
As painful as it is to admit it, the ever loathsome Robert Novak does make a good point in the "Beyond Nixon" documentary. Stone's premise that Nixon's references to the Bay of Pigs are related to the Kennedy assassination and that that's why Nixon went so far to cover up Watergate is simply farfetched. It's not bad enough that it rehashes yet again Stone's cockeyed JFK theories, many of which have since been discredited. What's worse is that this completely undermines the film dramatically. Up until this point, Stone has so carefully created a powerful portrait of a brilliant man's epic self-destruction. By inserting this nonsense, he makes the film about some half-baked conspiracy that actually gives Nixon a valid reason for obstructing justice. Stone should have left well enough alone and simply continued his depiction of Watergate as an extension of Nixon's damaged psyche, rather than as some sort of reckoning with pure evil.
Nixon is, in many ways, a superior film to JFK. It's not as immediately dramatic as that film, as it's a psychological drama rather than a whodunit. Nixon, however, is a more fascinating and intelligent study of human behavior than the earlier film. In exploring Nixon's self-destruction, Stone delivers a film that, even with his customary bluster, is still far more incisive and subtle than he's usually given credit for. Fans who already own the previous edition might find the combination of a new transfer and documentary worth the double dip, and anyone who hasn't seen Nixon should pick this up as well, as it's one of the best (and certainly more underrated) films of Stone's career. Highly recommended.
Nixon: Election Year Edition is easily acquitted, though the House Judiciary Committee will take up articles of impeachment to explore why a perfectly good DTS mix was omitted.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Hollywood Pictures
• Two Audio Commentaries with Oliver Stone
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