Nixon (Oliver Stone, 1995)

Whoa, melodrama overload!  And then subliminal-esque quick editing overload!  And then incomprehensible sneaky political talk overload!  Hell, everything about “Nixon” is overload.  Alright, maybe not as overloaded with randomness as “Natural Born Killers,” Oliver Stone’s most out-there film, but for sure, Stone went out of his way to make “Nixon” something unique.  If you’re looking for the prototypical biopic, look elsewhere.  “Nixon” is wildly uneven and a bizarre, bizarre film.  It’s near-impossible to follow, is all over the place with Stone’s wide and inconsistent stylistic decisions, and is way, WAY too long at 3+ hours, but still has some fascinating stuff to dig out of it to make it worth a watch.

I’m no history buff.  Everything I know about Watergate I learned from a quick browsing of the Wikipedia page.  I can’t tell a Haldeman from an Ehrlichman, a Mitchel from a Zielger, a Haig from a Dean.  These names, these crooked members of Nixon’s inner circle, mean nothing to me, nor do the ins and outs of a break in at the Watergate Hotel that led to the only Presidential resignation in American history.  And after watching “Nixon,” I still don’t give a damn.  For all I care, those Haldemans and Ehrlichmans were just Nixon’s sinister right hand men (led by a crewcut-sporting James Woods at his schemiest and sleaziest), the Cardinal Richelieus who eventually shape Nixon into the tragic disgrace he becomes.  When this movie is right, it’s the portrait of a weak, uncertain man caught up in a swirl of corruption and bureaucracy (the “Beast” as he calls it), but when it’s off, it’s an incredibly inconsistent film with stylistic discrepancies that’re more distracting than anything.  One moment you’ve got melodramatic Capra-esque scenes between Richard and Pat Nixon, the next Tricky Dick is giving his speech before the Republican Convention, the vast audience suddenly becoming the image of fireworks and explosions, the speech intercut with newsreel footage of the best and worst of Vietnam-era America (and I won’t even get into Bob Hoskins’ out-of-nowhere, eccentric turn as J. Edgar Hoover.  That just made me scratch my head…).  This is essentially two films in one: straight-up melodrama that tries (and mainly fails) to turn Nixon the caricature into Nixon the man (or even Nixon the tragic hero), and a mish-mash of subliminal images and quick editing that made “JFK” so great and “Natural Born Killers” so infuriating.

I hate most melodrama I see, and “Nixon” didn’t do anything to alleviate that.  Those scenes of domestic disputes between Dick and Pat (played by Joan Allen in the exact kind of Oscar-bait performance that I can’t stand) are dull and clichéd – the virtuous wife trying to bring back from the brink of destruction the husband who’s lost himself in his lust for power.  But it’s when Stone flashes back to Dick’s childhood (in black and white, no less), with his Quaker, uber-religious family and the loss of two brothers to illness – essentially tying all of Dick’s insecurities to a lousy childhood – when things are no longer just dull and clichéd, they’re downright insulting.  Call me heartless or cynical, but wouldn’t you find it just a little disingenuous on Oliver Stone’s part to subliminally place the ghostly visage of Dick’s mother in the Lincoln Room, watching over her disgraced son as he erases those infamous 18 1/2 minutes from the surveillance tapes, or for Dick to flash back to images of the faces of the dead while he’s being hospitalized?  Scenes of family-oriented melodrama prevented “JFK” from being a slam-dunk masterpiece, and similar scenes are “Nixon”‘s biggest folly.

Everything about “Nixon” is over-the-top: over-the-top with the melodramatic dialogue between President and First Lady, over-the-top with the flashy cinematography and editing, which tries to characterize the immediate world around Nixon as a swirling whirlpool of chaos.  Hell, just look no further than one of the film’s first moments: a dark and stormy night, music as ominous as possible, as the camera regards the White House from behind an iron fence.  You’d expect the suddenly-menacing 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue to be Xanadu, and behind its walls were the lost soul of Charles Foster Kane, deep in thought.  Some of it works and is even fascinating – sometimes when Nixon’s giving a rousing speech, you’re not sure if John Williams’ overly-bombastic score and the quick-cutting of inspiring/disheartening images is meant to be 100% sarcastic on Stone’s part, or at least somewhat genuine, and that’s the point.  There’s points where this movie is dutch angle after dutch angle, dark color after ominous shadow, that just go out of their way to show you how skewed Nixon’s perspective is, and how lost he feels in this bizarre world he’s invented for himself – sometimes it works, sometimes it’s eye-rollingly over-the-top.  But then you look at those bizarre but attention-grabbing stylistic flourishes that tell you that Stone wanted to make a unique art film out of the otherwise banal biopic genre, and then realize that they’re side-by-side with the exact kinds of scenes that define the banalities of the typical biopic, and you wonder exactly what Stone was going for.  Throw some random shit from random genres and random conspiracy theories (not to the extent of “JFK,” but still..) into a blender, you’ve got “Nixon”: some signs of something worthwhile, but scattered in pieces that are held together with paper clips.

Given that, on any other day I’d call “Nixon” a failure that couldn’t live up to its potential, but one wild card saves it: Anthony Hopkins is so fucking great as Dick Nixon that I can’t help but recommend the movie.  He’s great because he doesn’t try to emulate Richard Nixon’s famous mannerisms.  If he did that, this movie would’ve been straight-up satire, and believe it or not, that’s not what the left-wing Oliver Stone was going for.  Hopkins actually creates a pathetic (and empathetic), lost man who actually becomes something of a mythical and Shakespearean, hubris-marred figure (as Kissinger tells Nixon on his final night as President, “to be undone by a third-rate burglary is a fate of Biblical proportions.”  Indeed).  No, I didn’t see much Nixon in the Welsh Hopkins…but I didn’t see the increasingly-typecast Hopkins in the character, either.  Nixon as film character becomes completely unique, and a compelling figure.  Watch how he slouches and sweats during press conferences, or when he tries to exert his power while giving orders to his just-as-power hungry confidants in the Oval Office, or weeps next to an incredulous Kissinger (Paul Sorvino, understated and excellent as the soft-spoken, frog-throated Secretary of State) in the shadow-filled, firelit and menacing Lincoln Room.  Hopkins runs the gamut of emotion, from false sense of security to paranoia to his shocking “come and get me” attitude once impeachment looms, to downright despair and shame when he stands in judgment before the portrait of John F. Kennedy (“When they look at you, they see what they want to be. When they look at me, they see what they are” – another piece of not-so-subtle symbolic melodrama).    This was the man who brought shame and disgrace to the highest office in the nation, but Stone’s film and Hopkins’ performance makes Nixon the man something more than that.  Just think about strange moments and decisions in this man’s life (the “you won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore” concession speech, shamelessly showing off his cocker spaniel to the American public, “I am not a crook”, and on and on), and he’s like a weak, spoiled, middle-aged child, wanting everything and foolishly letting greedy forces around him guide him to glory, only to crash and burn – he’s unsympathetic because he’s greedy (or stupid) enough to get into this mess and get caught, but at least he’s pitiable, so the Nixon of this film is far from a villain.  Somehow Hopkins is able to disguise this man, a dirty blot in American history, with pretty curtains, so kudos to him.

The best scene in the entire film chronicles Nixon’s bizarre, impromptu late-night visit to the Lincoln Memorial and his run-in with a bunch of anti-war hippies.  They’re horrified by the old and out of touch Nixon’s “peace with honor” approach to Vietnam, and he’s horrified by their lifestyle, their automatic mistrust of him and the government.  As Nixon stares up at Lincoln, atomic bombs are superimposed behind him as a sarcastically-bombastic rendition of the Battle Hymn of the Republic plays.  This is the stuff of satire, a wonderful interpretation of Nixon’s hopelessly naive view of the world.  Then, things get all-too-serious as Nixon has his ultimate war of wills with, of all people, a 19 year old girl who understands what he never has, that this government Beast is swallowing him whole.  A scene like this is the stuff of greatness, weaving Stone’s signature over-the-top cynicism and random images with dead-set seriousness in the here and now.  “What have I done wrong,” he weepingly asks Kissinger later on.  “I opened China, I made peace with Russia, I ended the war, I did what I thought was right.  God, why do they hate me so?”  Did this powerful breakdown actually happen?  I doubt it, but every bad decision, every pang of guilt by the Nixon of this film leads to this very moment, so for the sake of the silver screen, it’s destiny.  Nixon was a lot like Stone and this movie: he saw greatness in what he was doing, but ignored the flaws until they grew too big for him to handle.  At this moment, Richard Nixon was no longer the demonized disgrace that I only knew from textbooks, but a tragic, compelling figure.  And it only took wading through three hours of uneven muck to get there.



4 comments so far

  1. Lauren on

    Joan Allen can bait me any way.

    Watched these Stone movies ages ago, don’t really remember them well, but my ratings pretty much exactly correspond with yours. Did you see W? Lemme go searchin’ for a… treatment of it. (Sorry.)

  2. Simon M. on

    fuck you. fuck you so very much 😆

    no, never got around to seeing W. Either ‘cuz I just didn’t have that much interest in it, or the sight of someone even just imitating that man is gonna continue to make my stomach churn until January 20th.

  3. Lauren on

    I couldn’t resist.

    Yeah. I just couldn’t get up the excitement for W. Then the reviews came in. I don’t know if I’ll ever bother — and the trailer looked so golden!

  4. Back Country Voices on

    LOL!!!! The “humanity” of an assassin! Give me a break! If by any chance whatsoever, Oliver Stone was the qualified history buff he claims to be, he would know something about the ligament story regarding the Watergate hoax. If anyone out there has any interest about the real reason why Nixon stepped down as president, please contact me about in reference to ‘The Alabama Project,’ at lisaleaksdotcom

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