Looking Back: Nixon (1995)

It is not the responsibility of cinema to be faithful to history. I feel the need to write this when reviewing a film by Oliver Stone, a filmmaker I love, whose work has been vilified by many for exaggerating or outright altering the course of history in his narratives, in part or flamboyantly. When Stone creates a cinematic facsimile of the past, we see it through his eyes, as his hazy, larger than life memories, rising emotions and sad recollections dictate the imagery.

This is political commentary and historical conjecture, not a faithful reproduction of Nixon’s life. Many complained about this and Stone’s other infidelities with “truth” but, since his films never claimed to be documentaries, hating Stone for making personal, exaggerated portrayals of the past is pointless. I’d rather see these figures and this period through the eyes of someone of vision, like Stone, and not a mere reenactment. “Nixon” doesn’t play it safe, is never subtle and favors operatic staging over anything simple.

It’s easy to get lost in Stone’s vision of America, in which incidents like Chappaquiddick, Watergate, and Vietnam and everyone from J. Edgar Hoover to Checkers the Dog are in full view. These and many, many more fascinating occurrences, figures and places come to life, either as flesh and bone depictions or political cartoon characters.

Whereas Stone’s “JFK” was acclaimed and popular, despite its controversial on-again, off-again relationship with the facts, “Nixon” was an outright flop. Pre-release controversy and opening a three-hour political drama against the likes of “Toy Story” and “Goldeneye” killed Stone’s 1995 epic at the box office. 25 years later, it’s still an impressive, giant-sized and deeply personal work from a major filmmaker.

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In the title role, Sir Anthony Hopkins looks very little like President Nixon. His make-up is closer to Ed Sullivan and his accent occasionally leaks through. Yet, despite the technical aspects of his performance that don’t connect, this is still among the finest he’s given and one of the essential takes on Tricky Dick. Hopkins conveys the insecurities, inner darkness, optimism, paranoia and ambition of Nixon. The real Nixon was far more handsome and ingratiating than the terminally haunted figure Hopkins plays. In Stone’s hands, Nixon is nothing less than King Lear, grasping for the power he not only craves but feels entitled to.

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A flashback to young Nixon’s life as a high school football player about sums up Stone’s attitude towards his subject: in the words of Nixon’s coach, “he’s worst athlete I’ve ever seen…but he’s got guts.” “Nixon” isn’t a character assassination like Stone’s imperfect, unfinished but remarkable “W.” The assessment of Nixon as a Commander in Chief alternates from scene to scene. At times, it appears Stone feels awe, pity and torrents of anger at Nixon. Stone and his film never lose their sympathy for the man, even as the character loses his dignity and becomes downright delusional in the last half.

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Joan Allen as Pat Nixon, James Woods as Bob Haldeman and especially Paul Sorvino (in an awesome melding of impersonation and deeply felt performance) are extraordinary. The cast is enormous and everyone makes their moments count. Mary Steenburgen’s unsettling portrayal as Nixon’s mother is just one example of how well assigned each actor is to their respective role.

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The visual palette, camera stocks and style alternates, as does the approach. Nixon’s trip to China has a decorous, dream-like quality with its layered imagery. Some of Nixon’s darker moments are filmed with Zapruder-like shakiness and grain. “Nixon” visually conveys the mindset of a man who is constantly suspicious, fighting his way to the top of the hill and struggling to endear himself with everyone he encounters.

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This is among Stone’s grandest gestures as a filmmaker, both a celebration of American success and a caution on how power can lead to utter compromise, of one’s reason and soul. Not as focused as “JFK,” Stone’s masterpiece, but still plays as a wily companion piece to that film. There are visual and thematic references to “Citizen Kane” but Stone isn’t trying to ape Orson Welles. He’s made a film that hearkens back to the young man who voted for Nixon in his youth, then protested against the war later on. This isn’t the definitive take on Nixon but it’s one of Stone’s defining works.

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