Monday, October 19, 2015

The Films of Oliver Stone: Nixon (1995)

Nixon (1995)
Directed by: Oliver Stone.
Written by: Stephen J. Rivele & Christopher Wilkinson & Oliver Stone.
Starring: Anthony Hopkins (Richard M. Nixon), Joan Allen (Pat Nixon), Powers Boothe (Alexander Haig), Ed Harris (E. Howard Hunt), Bob Hoskins (J. Edgar Hoover), E.G. Marshall (John Mitchell), David Paymer (Ron Ziegler), David Hyde Pierce (John Dean), Paul Sorvino (Henry Kissinger), Mary Steenburgen (Hannah Nixon), J.T. Walsh (John Ehrlichman), James Woods (H.R. Haldeman), Kevin Dunn (Charles Colson), Fyvush Finkel (Murray Chotiner), Annabeth Gish (Julie Nixon Eisenhower), Tom Bower (Frank Nixon), Tony Goldwyn (Harold Nixon), Larry Hagman ('Jack Jones'), Edward Herrmann (Nelson Rockefeller), Madeline Kahn (Martha Mitchell), Dan Hedaya (Trini Cardoza).

During Kevin Costner’s epic closing argument in JFK, he references Shakespeare when talking about the assassinated President, urging the jurors not to forget their “dying king”. Stone’s Nixon, made four years later, does more than just quote Shakespeare – it’s practically a Shakespearean play for America in the late 20th Century, taking Richard Nixon as its tragic figure – a man who was undeniably brilliant and ambitious – a man who could have (and did) accomplish a great deal in his life, but who is brought down by his own pettiness and paranoia. There is a scene late in the film when it’s all crashing down around him that Nixon, all by himself, looks up at a portrait of JFK and says “When they look at you, they see how the want to be. When they look at me, they see who they are” – which is worthy of Shakespeare, and so brilliantly written, acted and directed that it just may be the best single moment in any Stone film. In fact, the more times I see Nixon, they more I think that maybe, just maybe, it’s the best film Oliver Stone has ever made.

For the most part, Nixon focuses on Richard Nixon from the end of the 1960 Election, where he narrowly lost to JFK, in part due to his poor performance in the televised debates, to the moment more than decade later when Nixon resigns from being President in the midst of the Watergate scandal. Throughout the movie, Stone does flash back to Nixon’s childhood, in black and white scenes, that show how he was shaped by his mother’s religion, his mother’s hard driving ways, and the death of his beloved older brother. These scenes aren’t strictly necessary – the do reek of classic biopics clich├ęs – but they do help to inform the man we see – and help to do something wholly unexpected in a biopic of Richard Nixon by Oliver Stone – who clearly does not like the man – which is to paint Nixon in a largely sympathetic, and human light. While many at the time the movie was released (some, most likely, who never saw the film) accused it of being a hatchet job on Nixon, it really isn’t. It isn’t a glowing portrait of the man – but he isn’t the monster he is often portrayed as either.

As played by Anthony Hopkins (in a role that everyone from Warren Beatty to Jack Nicholson turned down), this Richard Nixon is an ambitious man, who is driven by his own insecurity to get to greater heights. He thinks everyone hates him, so he is driven to try and get people to love him – which they never really do, but he works so hard, that he gets far anyway. Hopkins doesn’t much look like Nixon – but he embodies the man in all of his contradictions – a sweaty, paranoid, profane man, who is capable of great cruelty, but also of a little bit of charm. You cannot help but feel sorry for him when he’s trying so hard, and getting nowhere. One of the more surprising aspects of the movie is the relationship between him and his wife, Pat (played by Joan Allen, who is as great as Hopkins). Pat Nixon always seems so passive in old clips of her – the personification of the dutiful political wife standing by her man no matter what. But surprisingly here, she is far from that – she is a strong character, one who, yes, does stand by her man – but also stands up to him. The political biopic often dismisses the various women in the lives of the politicians – and Stone is a filmmaker whose previous (and future) films often have a “woman problem” – with female characters who are one note at best. Allen’s Pat Nixon is the strongest female role in any Stone film – and the most unlikely one.

The film has a large, brilliant cast – many of whom are only playing small roles – as the film tracks Nixon’s rise and fall. The best of the supporting cast is probably Paul Sorvino as Henry Kissinger, and the roles for James Woods and J.T. Walsh as the ever loyal Haldeman and Erlichman, along with David Hyde Pierce, as the not so loyal John Dean. Yet, there is hardly a bad performance from the large cast – including a great of great scenes with Larry Hagman as an angry Nixon supporter.

The film has the classic arch of a biopic – the rise and fall that we have become so familiar with. And yet, it is in the details that Stone does his best work. A scene where Nixon confronts a group of protestors at the Lincoln Memorial, where everyone walks away realizing the reality of the situation a little bit more than they did before, a scene where Nixon discussing the escalation of the war walks away from his bloody steak, as the blood slowly seeps out around the plate, a late scene where Nixon in a paranoid, fever pitch starts striking out passages in the infamous White House tapes transcipts. The movie is full of these smaller moments that help paint the larger portrait.

The movie opens with what shouldn’t really be necessary – a disclosure that the film is based on the life of Richard Nixon, but not wholly accurate to it – that some scenes are imagined or condensed, etc. – which anyone walking into a biopic of other “historical fiction” – which this is – should already know. Just like the Shakespeare plays about real people, Nixon is hardly fully accurate – nor could it ever hope to be. But also like those Shakespeare plays, what the movie is, is an epic tragedy – the story of a man who had greatness within his grasp, who succumbs to his own flaws which will be what eventually destroys him. Hopkins had initially turned the role down – like many others before him, saying that he thought it should go to an American actor. But casting someone as well versed in Shakespeare ended up being the right call. This Richard Nixon is every bit as tragic as Macbeth or Richard III.

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