Top Ten List: #6 of 1995 (U.S. releases)
Top Ten List: #5 of 1995 (world premieres)
Director: Oliver Stone. Cast: Anthony Hopkins, Joan Allen, James Woods, J.T. Walsh, Paul Sorvino, David Hyde Pierce, Powers Boothe, Ed Harris, E.G. Marshall, Madeline Kahn, David Paymer, Bob Hoskins, Larry Hagman, Mary Steenburgen, Tom Bower, Annabeth Gish, Marley Shelton, Corey Carrier, David Barry Gray, Tony Goldwyn, Joanna Going, Peter Carlin, Edward Herrmann, Brian Bedford, Fyvush Finkel, George Plimpton, Tony Plana, Kevin Dunn, Tony Lo Bianco, Dan Hedaya, Bridgette Wilson, Michael Chiklis, Saul Rubinek, John Diehl, Ric Young, Boris Sichkin. Screenplay: Steven J. Rivèle, Christopher Wilkinson, and Oliver Stone.

Oliver Stone's Nixon is a hulking tyrannosaur of a movie, lusty and fierce, crashing around for all the world to see, majestic in its size and scope though it's also an instant anachronism. You admire the film tremendously yet you also feel a little sorry for it: if ever a movie were doomed to be unloved it's this one, a semi-tragic and grandly theatrical rendering of the life of one of our least mourned presidents, himself a cramped and discomfiting churl whose own wife admits in a moment of candor, "Sometimes I can see why they hate you, Dick." More than that, the movie has a style so high it's low—all canted angles, bleary overexposures, vulgar exaggerations, and hyperkinetic editing, which should all feel like old tricks after JFK and Natural Born Killers, and to some extent, they do. You can't shake the feeling that Oliver Stone enters a Cretaceous phase of his career with this film, wringing one more honest effort out of aesthetic compulsions that will soon dry up and wither, neutering his visions entirely. And in truth, nothing he's made since, starting with 1997's execrable U-Turn, has inspired any confidence. It's as though making a movie about a prodigiously powerful but self-defeating pariah turned Stone into his mirror image. But that's part of the power of Nixon, too. It's a film so grand and haunted, touched by reckless genius more than once in its 191 minutes, that you can imagine it exercising a hold over its makers, hypnotizing its audiences, and rousing its own restless ghosts. It's a piece of work, this thing—overstated at times but, as Stone so masterfully manages when he's on his game, he spins his pop-psychedelic vulgarity into that increasingly rare commodity in American commercial cinema, an artistic point of view. You don't just watch Nixon. You reckon with it.

Stone is not a director known for ambiguity, and on the rare occasions when he achieves it, as here, it is not a discrete quality in itself but the conglomerate result of all kinds of over-the-top effects and prompts that don't lead in quite the same direction. Nixon isn't molecular, it's cyclonic, stuffed with people doing a multitude of things at a rapid pace within a busy environment of stylistic excess. In the middle of all of this action is Nixon, who is both the dark and vacant center and the sum total of all the parts. Stone, who authored the screenplay with Steven J. Rivèle and Christopher Wilkinson, is a hoary enough scenarist that he actually frames the movie as an internal reminiscence, playing out one dark and stormy night in the White House, as Nixon listens to miles of taped conversations and either remembers, reimagines, or revises the scenes they describe. It's a hugely stagy device, and one to which the movie seems half-committed: only on occasion within this 3-hour opus does the narrative hunker back to this framing scenario, and yet it's still no stretch to see the whole film as emanating from this lurid and substance-assisted reverie.

If you're looking for a touchstone image, you could do worse than a passage from Nixon's childhood when the future president's older brother Harold (Tony Goldwyn) is dying of tuberculosis. As Harold vomits blood into a bowl, Stone cuts to a non-diegetic but mood-enhancing close-up of human tissue blackening and shriveling into raisins. This black & white image then dissolves into the famous fly-over footage of the illicit missile sites in Cuba, the footage that sparked the Cuban Missile Crisis. The joining of these two images, specifically via a dissolve, nearly encapsulates Stone's political sensibility if not his entire worldview, and it's as good a key as any into why his movies are, at their best, so fascinating and, across their range of quality, so frustrating. (Even something like U-Turn isn't just bad, it's bad in an exceedingly frustrating way, obscene and protracted, full of diversions that could improve the film but only further debase it.) Stone renders politics, particularly in JFK and Nixon, as though it were a blood disease, as though the world and its crises were only a symptom for the power, greed, and connivance running beneath everybody's surface—everybody who matters to Stone, anyway.

In Nixon, Stone has found a protagonist who so persuasively shares this worldview that, for the first time, the technical grandiosity of the picture actually serves the internal characterizations. JFK, from which Nixon is an almost inextricable companion project, was so dazzling and diamantine in its fusion of different images and ideas that you couldn't quite believe that all of this thought-process was springing from the mind of Kevin Costner's sincere but rather flat-footed Jim Garrison. The intervening Natural Born Killers, one of the virtuoso technical exercises of mid-90s American filmmaking, floated a thesis about social corruption and hedonistic perversity that didn't really hold Stone or his collaborators to any boundaries. The movie works because of its sprawling, electric, and gargantuan libido, but this point of view becomes so universal that Stone never manages to say anything new; he just paints familiar social homilies in hot new colors.

With Nixon, the photography and montage are a little more controlled, however ludicrously over-the-top they would look within any other director's portfolio; a reasonably sedated Stone is still a huffing bull. But the matching of this aesthetic to the story of Nixon, whose paranoias and power-addictions boiled beneath such a stolid façade, actually amounts to a bold idea and a challenging project. How do you humanize Richard Nixon without adopting a humanism that is falsely simple or overly soft—without, in other words, recapitulating the egregious romanticism of Nixon's funeral, an especially low point in America's tradition of whitewashing its history? How, indeed, do you do this when your movie is financed by Hollywood Pictures, a live-action subsidiary of Disney? Stone finds a way, and it's beyond ambitious. When Nixon debuted, the adjective "Shakespearean" got tossed around a lot as a descriptor of Stone's complex approach to the character, but if we must resort to Renaissance terminology, the film could more rightfully be called Marlovian. Nixon festers and fumes and sobs through the movie, particularly in the framing device, just like Marlowe's Edward II does in his chamber, awaiting both the harsh, puncturing retribution of his enemies and the judgments of the offstage audience. Stone's Nixon has a blood relation, too, to the tyrant Tamburlaine and the tragic Doctor Faustus, though like the great early modern playwrights, Stone has made sure to evoke Nixon's historical milieu powerfully and specifically enough that his psychology isn't that of a "type," and it isn't abstract: his manias, his gifts, and his downfall are all endemic to the man and his moment, simultaneously.

The framing images of Nixon boiling away in his sitting room are just a literalized version of how Nixon acts all through the movie, obsessing over his legacy, pre-empting the criticism of friends and foes alike, and imagining all kinds of secret plots against him even as he tries to push through the choices and situations at hand. Stone never comes out and calls Nixon a madman, but the film makes the case. Without resorting to a Rashomon structure of contested views of history, parceled out in large, successive chunks, the director and his inspired editors, Hank Corwin and Brian Berdan, keep letting the flow of events and conversations bob and weave in subtler, more disquieting ways. Lines of dialogue are repeated, sometimes after the speakers' mouths have stopped moving, and the most abstract, platonic images of pure affect—anxiety, distrust, plum satisfaction, abject panic—are interspersed within the mundane, realistic scenes of dialogue. Cinematographer Robert Richardson uses high-intensity lighting effects throughout, so you can feel how much is at stake in every scene, even when the stakes are only in Nixon's imagination. He also makes unsettling use of rack focus, the technique where depth of field changes radically within a single shot (shallow focus to background, for example), since these shifts don't always correspond to any clear dynamic in the conversation; some kind of power transfer is at work, but we aren't sure what, just as we aren't sure what to make of the similar shots where Richardson switches from color to black & white photography without cutting. It's crucial that these techniques never amount to Natural Born Killers' full-on panoply of psychedelic color and frenzied motion. Nixon still feels like a movie about a man running a country; a certain measure of authority and control are acknowledged, even as the stylistic embellishments and subverted points of view eat away at this foundation, mostly comprised of a bunch of odd ducks and mistrustful allies who sit around deriving dubious conclusions from rather prosaic evidence. The sensational, the plain, the esoteric, and the impossible all co-exist throughout the film , and Stone uses the mix both to evoke Nixon's troubled frame of mind and to sketch the timbre of American politics as it forever altered under his watch.

This approach is poetic and forceful, and it leads to all kinds of tough, muscular scenes, like the one when a self-pitying Nixon visits the Lincoln Memorial in the middle of the night, after a long day of student protests against the Vietnam War. Different cues in this sequence, especially those abstract and disjunctive cuts at which Nixon so excels, keep us from knowing exactly what's happening here: is the prez actually connecting with these young people who deplore him? Is the 19-year-old girl played by Joanna Going, who dresses Nixon down for the hypocrisy and inadequacy of his position, a figment of his psyche, or a synthesis of several voices, or a real person? Does Nixon arrive in order to be humiliated, or does he think he will finally connect? And at what exact point does he stop listening and begin his customary mental retreat? It's impossible to tell. The intrusion of his entourage, which harshly concludes the scene, is so vast and so sudden, it's one more reason not to take the moment at face value. Still, within this uncertain reality, all sorts of evocative truths get aired about the loneliness of the presidency, the growing disquiet of the country, and the Sisyphusian way in which Nixon kept thinking that this time, he'd win the crowd. The companion scene in the movie is the one on board Air Force One as Nixon returns from China, convinced that the journalists are prepared to eviscerate him; instead, they shower him with praise and congratulations. You can tell from Anthony Hopkins' face, and then from his rote repeat of that infamous, arms-in-a-V victory pose, that Nixon has no clearer grasp of why the press suddenly admire him than he did of why the students so abhorred him.

Speaking of China, though, the actual Nixon-Mao encounter is almost laughably overwrought, with phantom Chinese calligraphs floating over the action and gongs portentously sounding on the soundtrack. It's hard to believe that even Nixon experienced this moment as a trip into the heart of ethnicized darkness, but both this sequence and the later rencontre with Brezhnev are baldly unconvincing and rather hysterically depicted—even in a picture whose bread and butter is political hysteria. If that hysteria weren't so potently evoked in the editing, framing, and lighting, I'm sure I'd be inclined to reject the tenor of several characterizations, from Mary Steenburgen's creepy appearances as Nixon's mother to Bob Hoskins' differently creepy embrace of the J. Edgar Hoover as Evil Fairy stereotype, placing fruit slices in his mouth and begging his Cubano pool-boys to take a bite. Anyone who grimaced when Tommy Lee Jones threw his fairyland costume parties in JFK won't be reassured by Hoskins' slithery demeanor here. (The distinguished actor Brian Bedford, cast here is Hoover's companion, has no way of registering against this baroque drag act of Hoskins', so he winds up just lounging around in his robe, a deflated boy in the band.)

That Nixon couches itself as the fantasia of a diseased mind does a lot to excuse these more florid characterizations, especially since they all reflect Nixon's prejudices as much as they do Stone's. They are also saved, though, as is the whole movie, by the acuity of the central performances. Stone hasn't gone out of his way to match the various styles of acting within his cast, and that's ultimately to the film's benefit: it sharpens our sense of history as a collision of eccentrics and it makes each individual character a unique presence or threat within this grimly conspiratorial atmosphere. Ed Harris' glowering Howard Hunt, who opens the movie and then slyly disappears from large swaths of it, shares a key scene with David Hyde Pierce's almost gamine John Dean, but each actor's approach is right for the context of the scene and the film. So, too, is James Woods' drolly hawkish presence as Haldeman. It's a large-ish part in terms of screen time but small in terms of dialogue, and Woods is the right actor to make Haldeman's silent ruthlessness palpable, just as J.T. Walsh is spot-on for the doubting John Ehrlichman. In both cases, their fidelity to the real-life personalities is less important than the tones of walking realpolitik and wavering conscience that they supply to the movie. Meanwhile, Joan Allen registers such intense presence of mind, physical resignation, and surprising carnality as Pat Nixon that you wonder why she doesn't just seize the reins of the White House herself; but then, Allen's unfailing sense of period, composure, and tone remind us of why she didn't, couldn't, and wouldn't. This actress elicits awe, regally dignifying her character yet adamantly refusing to steal her scenes (even if she winds up stealing a few anyway). Stone has filled his movie not just with terrific actors but with believably smart ones. They all radiate a sense of understanding both their complicated characters and the extreme, sometimes freewheeling use to which Stone intends to put them.

Meanwhile, Anthony Hopkins is simply unsurpassable as Nixon. His performance both rejects and transcends any superficial mimicry, and from the standpoint of technique, it's the opposite of Hopkins' equally iconic turn as Hannibal Lecter. His body here is restless, hunched, stout in a way that is both clumsy and imposing, occasionally plaintive as it trembles before some new crisis. The one feature that seldom registers are his eyes, which were the whole key to Lecter; somehow, Hopkins has learned how to shut off the light behind them and make Nixon seem like a droning absentee even as he's pushing people around or flinging furniture around the Oval Office. The voice and the body, the artful pauses and interrupted gestures, offer a symphony of contradictory notes, though each of them has a place within this actor's almost exhaustingly complete characterization. When archival footage of the real Nixon shows up late in the movie, he seems less like Nixon than Hopkins does, a paradoxical conundrum in a movie about a man who was a paradoxical conundrum, a rags-to-riches president who couldn't relate to riches or to rags.

Hopkins is so toweringly good in this film, its psychological layering is so dense, and its broad ensemble of players is so exquisitely folded into its baroque visual designs that we can't be faulted for thinking of Citizen Kane, a film so brilliant that few people even attempt to copy it. Don't think the comparison hasn't occurred to Stone: he starts his movie with a view of the White House through a barred gate and follows with a newsreel being screened in a dark room by a gang of shadowy men. The Nixons will later have a standoff from their respective sides of a long dining-room table, and the serial flashbacks to childhood install a fierce complex of maternal fascination and familial abandonment that, to say the least, risk a little overstatement. Fewer of these flashbacks might have accomplished more, as they do in Kane, but Stone seems not to know the meaning of "fewer." He flees from understatement the way some people flee from plague, and he often can't let a good enough thing alone, hammering home allusions and connections that don't need hammering, baiting JFK's detractors with more assassination theories, and awkwardly juxtaposing the layered emotions of Nixon's final scene with the Guignol touches (dark corridors, rolling thunder) that a film-school student would reject as corny. Victor Kempster, Stone's production designer, has done a punctilious job of recreating several White House sets, though he nicely tows the line between realism and revisionism that Stone's films require. The film strains to accommodate the stony and firelit grotto where Larry Hagman, as a zealous Texas oil-man and prime financier of Nixon's presidential bids, reigns like a demon on Earth. Kempster's set and Richardson's lighting draw us into the scene without asking to take it at face value, and this high-wire act by which Stone and his collaborators nimbly justify the film's excesses is much more impressive—and much more entertaining—than the more obvious decision of toning everything down a little. Even Kempster can't do much about Stone's hammy insistence on the motif of presidential portraits, which pop up in almost every interior Nixon enters, but the final confrontation with a life-size oil painting of John Kennedy leads to a vivid closing tableau.

In short, Nixon is full of dazzling strengths and bothersome weaknesses, but then so many of the weaknesses—the clichés, the stereotypes, the leaden symbols—are alchemized into strengths, because this Barnumesque director offers them so sincerely that his passion neutralizes our doubts. Not that a great deal of Nixon requires any apology. The film is a towering entry in a genre that barely exists in American film: a pop biography of a recent historical figure, played not for simple bromides or one-stop moral judgments but for a tragic contrast of potential versus outcome. Nixon has so many faults and terrible habits that it's hard to see anything that was good about him, save perhaps for his dogged resilience, and even that quality led him straight into a fair number of disasters. But it's this strange, bullish resilience that characterizes the film: you keep wanting to fix the details, but the movie's insistence on its own greatness is finally quite convincing. I am not sure that Nixon, of all people, really deserved such a generously considered, technically refined, and consummately acted biography, but the film proves illuminating to even the biggest skeptics, perhaps even especially to the skeptics. This man was worth considering; certainly, his problems remain our problems, and Nixon hasn't lost anything in the nine years since it debuted. In any case, American audiences have deserved a movie like this for a long time, rich in ideas and unpredictable in its sympathies. As it turned out at the holiday box-office in 1995, few people seemed interested in what Oliver Stone was peddling, and the film's critical legacy has already fallen to a near-complete hush. But if there was ever one thing that set Nixon apart, it was his knack for a comeback. Come on, renters. Give Nixon a chance. Grade: A–

Academy Award Nominations:
Best Actor: Anthony Hopkins
Best Supporting Actress: Joan Allen
Best Original Screenplay: Steven J. Rivèle, Christopher Wilkinson, and Oliver Stone
Best Original Score: John Williams

Golden Globe Nominations:
Best Actor (Drama): Anthony Hopkins

Other Awards:
Los Angeles Film Critics Association: Best Supporting Actress (Allen)
National Society of Film Critics: Best Supporting Actress (Allen)
Boston Society of Film Critics: Best Supporting Actress (Allen)

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