On the heels of his controversial JFK (1991), director Oliver Stone’s Nixon (1995) probes yet another painful chapter in America’s political tapestry. The artistic audacity with which Stone embraced this film began with an inauspicious dinner between director and former speechwriter and House Foreign Affairs committee member, Eric Hamburg.
At the time, Stone had been exploring two subsequent movie projects; one on Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega, the other a film adaptation of Evita. When Stone could find no backers for either project, he turned his attentions to a biopic about Richard M. Nixon. Hamburg employed Stephen J. Rivele and his writing partner Christopher Wilkinson to pen the first treatment – emphasizing both the virtues and vices of Nixon’s presidency.
Essentially, Stone liked the idea of Nixon as a basically honest individual who is consumed by the political machinery, military industrial complex, and, the checks and balances of corrupt associations that topple a man from greatness. For Stone, Nixon's complicity prevents him from instilling positive change to counter the Washington establishment.
Immersed in his research, Stone interviewed former Nixon aids and colleagues, including Attorney General Elliot Richardson and lawyer Leonard Garment to flesh out the man behind the presidency. He also hired former Nixon aids, Alexander Butterfield, John Sears and John Dean to cherry pick the script for accuracy and contribute additional writing. Cast were encouraged to contact their real life counterparts for advice; the one exception being Anthony Hopkins who did not have that luxury. Nixon had already died.
Instead, Hopkins immersed himself in newsreels, interviews and documentary footage. After a few days of principle photography, Hopkins apprehensions over the amount of dialogue he had to learn were significantly compounded by co-star Paul Sorvino who reportedly told Hopkins ‘you’re doing it all wrong.’ (Aside: it should be noted that Sorvino’s performance as Henry Kissinger is the most inspired and hauntingly credible in the movie.) There were even rumors that Hopkins asked Stone to be removed from the project. Whatever the truth, Hopkins stayed the course.
Although his central performance as Nixon yields some remarkable moments of insightful clarity, on the whole the physical discrepancies between the actor and his real life counterpart occasionally proved too great for even Hopkins’ formidable acting talents to overcome. Stone also encountered controversy behind the scenes, chiefly from producer Arnon Milchan with whom the director had a three picture deal at Warner Bros. Essentially, Milchan did not want Stone to do this film. When reducing the budget on the project failed to dissuade the director from moving ahead, Stone simply took his film to Cinergi and the Walt Disney Company instead – incurring Milchan’s wrath.
Meanwhile, a copy of the shooting script was leaked to former CIA director, Richard Helms (Sam Waterston in the film) who threatened a lawsuit against the movie. As a result, Stone cut all scenes involving conversations with Helms from the theatrical release. Curiously enough, Helms did not attempt to block these scenes from being reinstated in the home video release. However, Stone, who was no stranger to nay-saying pundits after the release of JFK was in for another round of critical backlash.
Plot wise: Nixon is more an amalgam of highlights from both the public and private life of the former president than a linear recanting of the Nixon presidency. Flashbacks depict young Richard’s (Cory Carrier and later David Barry Gray) staunchly religious upbringing in Whittier California. His mother Hannah (Mary Steenburgen) is obsessively devote, while his father (Tom Bower) is a stern - occasionally cruel - patriarch.
Employing the now popularized non-linear narrative, we are first introduced to an adult Nixon (Hopkins) after his crushing defeat for the White House opposite Jack Kennedy. Campaign adviser H.R. Haldeman (James Woods) plots a strategic regrouping, but after considerable thought – and the very real threat of divorce made by his wife, Pat (Joan Allen) – Nixon agrees to retire from political life. In public, Nixon is depicted as conflicted, determined, stubborn and deceptive. In private however, he is dogged by visions of his eldest brother, Harold’s (Tony Goldwyn) death from tuberculosis and from his own perceived social inadequacies. Frequently, we see Nixon as a loner, lonely and sometimes even lost; his personal malaise mixed with bouts of alcoholism and a chronic dependency to prescription medications. However, after Kennedy's assassination, with President Johnson declining to seek another term in office, Nixon decides to take one last stab at the White House.
Pat reluctantly agrees with his decision, recognizing how much her husband’s political career means to him. Nixon is elected and becomes part of the Washington establishment. Fair-weather friend, J. Edgar Hoover (Bob Hoskins) advises Nixon to install wire tapping devices in the Oval Office – a move that eventually leads to his undoing. In an uncharacteristically bold editing decision, after the Watergate scandal breaks wide open in the media, the film concludes with the president’s resignation, replacing Hopkins’ performance with actual news footage of Nixon’s farewell address and his departure in a helicopter from the front lawn of the White House.
Two days prior to its general release, the Nixon family labeled Stone’s depiction of the former president as ‘reprehensible’; a charge Stone defended against with a round of ingratiating interviews. To what extent public animosity served to dampen either the spirits or critical response to the film’s premiere is largely debatable. The film debuted at a tepid $2,206,506 and grossed a meager $13,681,765 – far below its $44 million investment. In retrospect Nixon – the movie - is hampered more by its subject matter than anything else.
Whereas JFK the movie - had the luxury of a deified presidency in retrospect, Nixon – the movie – requires our belief in an actor to portray its subject. Also, the narrative must end on that all too familiar sour note of impeachment. While JFK is all about exposing the darkness in American politics, and by extension, offering a light at the end of the tunnel, Nixon is about the darkness itself; its all-consuming destructiveness and the moral ambiguity of a presidency the fallout of which, in many ways, America is still grappling to comprehend.
There are many fine things about the film, not the least being its acting and Stone's exceptional non-linear construction that, even in all its complexities, makes perfect cinematic sense. Hopkins performance is not his best, but it's not terrible either, and he is supported by an exceptional ensemble who are doing everything right. Like JFK, Nixon is a film that requires the audience to be proactive and knowledgeable about its subject matter to fully appreciate and be able to glean the hidden nuggets of wisdom. But such an investment is well rewarded in the end. Nixon is exceptionally ambitious film making. I also happen to think it's a great film about an unsettling time in world politics. It asks, and at least attempts to answer, the hard questions about a flawed man and his controversial presidency.
After an atrocious non-anamorphic DVD release by Buena Vista Home Video, the newly minted 1080p Blu-ray ‘Election Year Edition’ comes as quite a welcomed revelation. Like its predecessor, this version of Nixon includes 28 minutes of footage unseen in the theatrical cut. Unlike the previously released disc, the image quality this time around exhibits a very smooth, fully saturated quality with very solid background detail and beautifully rendered colors.
The bizarre digital enhancements that rendered several scenes on the aforementioned disc muddy, fuzzy and out of focus have all been corrected on the Blu-ray. Given Buena Vista’s rather lackluster and spotty commitment to their catalogue titles in general (we are still waiting for anamorphic widescreen copies of I Love Trouble, Can’t Buy Me Love, Adventures in Babysitting, Evita and Con Air on standard DVD to name but a handful) it is comforting to see the care that’s gone into this remastering effort on Nixon.
The audio is DTS but remains 5.1. Extras include two alternate and extensive audio commentaries by Oliver Stone – each offering fascinating insight into the making of the film and sharing the intense understanding and research Stone conducted on his subject in preparation for making the film. There are also snippets of Stone on the Charlie Rose Show as well as “Beyond Nixon”; a feature length documentary made by Stone’s son, Sean. Recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)