Over fifty years after producer Daryl F. Zanuck's expensive flop Wilson, director Oliver Stone breathed new life into the presidential film with Nixon. A convincing blend of Shakespearean tragedy and Citizen Kane, Nixon paints the thirty-seventh President of the United States as a uniquely American tragic hero who is at times pathetic, at times sympathetic, and at times (mainly in his diplomatic accomplishments), admirable. Given Nixon's shame as the only President ever to resign the office, and taking into account Stone's own liberal politics, Nixon shows an almost tender regard to its subject in depicting the forces that shaped Nixon's personality and political character.
Which is not to say that Stone goes easy on Nixon, played with pitiable, fearful magnetism (not charisma, you understand, but magnetism) by Welsh actor Sir Anthony Hopkins. Hopkins' Nixon is consistently sweaty and slouchy, his inner turmoil constantly bubbling to the surface. It's the right performance to work in concert with Stone's hyperbolic style (developed over several films with cinematographer Robert Richardson), and that style is a sane approach to telling an American story writ large, a tragedy performed on the national stage (John Williams understands this, delivering an alternatingly insinuating and blustery score). Though dramatic license is by necessity taken, Stone's film is crammed with detail from the historical record: consider what Nixon would have been like if played absolutely straight and shot in conventional style. The story would lose its grand dimension: this is history that looms large in the public imagination, and Stone's treatment is more poetry than it is myth (Stone calls it a "subjective psychological drama" or "psycho-history").
The film opens on the decisive event of Nixon's presidency, at the Watergate Hotel in June of 1972. From there, it will leap backwards and forwards through history, including scenes from Nixon's formative years in rural Whittier, California and arriving at the end of his Presidency (a epilogue features actual footage of Nixon's funeral in 1994). In the course of 190 minutes (expanded to 213 minutes in the "Director's Cut" available on home video), Stone deals with Nixon's Quaker upbringing and family tragedies, his erratic political climb (retold mostly in a "March of Time" newsreel that evokes Kane), his political paranoia and conspiratorial tactics, his complex relationship with wife Pat (Joan Allen, steely and pained), his scandals (Alger Hiss, "Checkers," the Pentagon Papers), his "triangular diplomacy" triumph of foreign policy (detente wth Russia, the "opening" of China), and his ignominious resignation. (Stone also pointedly alludes to Citizen Kane in a push-in through the White House gates and a cold dinner scene between Dick and Pat).
The screenplay by Stephen J. Rivele & Christopher Wilkinson & Stone is nothing if not ambitious in depicting so much and so many: H.R. Haldeman (James Woods), John Ehrlichman (J.T. Walsh), Henry Kissinger (Paul Sorvino), Al Haig (Powers Boothe), John Mitchell (E.G. Marshall), Howard Hunt (Ed Harris), John Dean (David Hyde Pierce), J. Edgar Hoover (Bob Hoskins), among many others. Stone keeps it all coherent, and knowing full well that he'd be attacked, Stone published a scrupulously annotated screenplay demonstrating the sources that had inspired each scene and line of dialogue. Despite his impressive factual basis, Stone conceded what anyone with half a brain could reason on their own, that Nixon would inevitably be Oliver Stone's Nixon, with the director's subjective view of the man's psychology and role in history. And indeed, it is his job as a dramatist to do so.
So how does Stone see Nixon? Stone concludes that, at the most basic psychological level, Nixon simply and desperately wanted approval. As Kissinger puts it, "Can you imagine what this man might have been had he ever been loved? It's a tragedy because he had greatness in his grasp, but he had the defects of his qualities." In another scene, with Watergate about to explode, Ehrlichman expresses considerably more frustration about the fallout from Nixon's sense of inadequacy: "This is about Richard Nixon. I mean, you got people dying because he didn't make the Varsity football team. You got the Constitution hanging by a thread because he went to Whittier, not to Yale." The summit with Chairman Mao (Ric Young) serves as this film's equivalent of the Stone "vision quest," with Mao telling Nixon, "We are the new emperors. We are both from poor families, and others pay to feed the hunger in us...History is a symptom of our disease." The telltale Stone ghost figure is Nixon's stern Quaker mother, played to good effect (and avoidance of caricature) by Mary Steenburgen; the son constantly reflects on his failure to live up to the mother's ideals ("Strength in this life, happiness in the next").
Habitually slipping into third person ("They always hated Nixon"), the President talks often of "today"'s kids having it too easy, and threatening his staff that "belts are coming off and people are going to go to the woodshed." His martyr complex is effectively dramatized in one of the few scenes made up out of whole cloth, as Nixon absconds for a late-night visit to the Lincoln Memorial. The scene becomes a confrontation with the young generation of war protestors (Stone's generation), whose liberal disappointment Nixon can't comprehend; certainly, "the old Nixon charm" is lost on them. "Liberals act like idealism belongs to them," he muses aloud. "That's not true." Even while identifying the misguidedness, of Nixon's idealism, Stone ackowledges it, and, cedes that any American president has a tough row to hoe in dealing with the systematic invasiveness of "the CIA, the Mafia, those Wall Street bastards."
For dramatic purposes, big business becomes emblematized by oil man "Jack Jones" (Larry Hagman), and Stone allows Nixon a heroic moment, however tainted, when the President stands up to the political interest's demands (on the other hand, "Tricky Dick" allows supporters to buy ambassadorships). Stone also uses this plot thread to make further intimations about the theoretical conspiracy to kill Kennedy, explored in detail in 1991's JFK. Stone insistently includes poetic touches that threaten to take the film out of its realistic milieu, as when a policy discussion about Vietnam ends on a too-rare steak, Nixon commenting, "There's blood on my plate" (in the Director's Cut, Nixon accidentally heads into the toilet with Hoover after deciding to bug the Oval Office).
Nixon at his very worst rears his ugly head in scenes depicting his profane anti-Semitism, alcohol and pill consumption, and sexual disinterest in his wife, and Stone cleverly holds Nixon up to the standard of the men who came before him. The Oval Office portrait of Washington looms over many of Nixon's low points, and Nixon talks to icons of Lincoln and Kennedy. "Lyndon bugged, so did Kenedy, FDR cut a deal with Lucky Luciano. Christ, even Eisenhower had a mistress," Nixon wonders. "What's so special about me?" That Stone's Nixon answers that question by becoming not only the scalpel but the heart makes this visceral political operation a unique and powerful American film, and arguably Stone's best.
Hollywood Pictures Home Entertainment has every reason to release Nixon on Blu-Ray (and re-release it on DVD) now. For starters, this release called the "Election Year Edition" comes at a time when Presidential politics are at the forefront of the nation's thinking. Then there's the pending release of Oliver Stone's Bush biopic W. and Ron Howard's Frost/Nixon. And the fact that five of Stone'f ilms have already been released on Blu-Ray with a sixth (JFK) on the schedule. At any rate, this confluence has caused the happy result of Stone's magnum opus getting the deluxe treatment on Blu-Ray.
The fully remastered film features an impressive new hi-def transfer and remixed 5.1 Uncompressed PCM and Dolby Digital tracks. While this might not be the reference disc to show off your system, it does do justice to the ever-shifting visual and aural techniques Stone applies, and certainly, it's the best this film has looked and sounded on any home-video format. This is the Director's Cut version of the film, with approximately 18 more minutes of footage than the theatrical cut.
In the area of Special Features, the Election Year Edition includes a very interesting, brand-new documentary by Sean Stone (Oliver's son). "Beyond Nixon" (35:19) incorporates footage from the historical record while getting wags to speak about Nixon and Nixon. Participants include University of Texas Law School professor Sanford Levinson, American University professor Peter J. Kuznick, former White House Counsel John Dean, columnist/author Robert Novak, author Dr. Michael Maccoby, Gore Vidal, Nixon speechwriter Richard J. Whalen, former White House Special Counsel Leonard Garment, former Congresswoman Elizabeth Holtzman, co-founder for the Institute for Policy Studies Marcus Raskin, historian Howard Zinn, and author Jim Hougan.
The rest of the bonus features are familiar from Disney's excellent 2002 collector's edition Director's Cut release. Stone delivers not one but two commentaries: the first ostensibly focused on filmmaking (the actors, the dramatic elements, the production) and the second putting emphasis on history and the way the film reflects it. Be aware that neither offers wall-to-wall talk, but Stone is always interesting, and there are plenty of fascinating nuggets on both tracks.
If time is a premium for you, go straight to the Charlie Rose Show interview with Oliver Stone (55:09). Stone and Rose have a history, with the interviewer always coming in with an agenda (that he resists admitting) and Stone always ready to parry and defend his films. This is perhaps the most interesting of the Rose/Stone interviews, a full hour that finds Stone almost serenely accepting of Rose's passive-aggressiveness: he comes off the bigger man, by far, along the way revealing much of his thinking and the depth of his knowledge about Nixon.
The disc also includes almost an hour of Deleted Scenes (58:16), framed by extensive comments by Stone about the overall film (not the deleted scenes). They are: "Introduction by Oliver Stone" (8:11), "Nixon's Limousine Through Protesters" (1:55), "CIA Building: Richard Helms & Nixon" (11:54), "Hoover & Nixon (Second Meeting)/Tricia's Wedding (Expanded)" (8:24), "CIA Building: Richard Helms & Nixon"(11:54), "Hoover & Nixon (Second Meeting)/Tricia's Wedding (Expanded)" (8:24), "Cabinet Meeting" (2:57), "Air Force One (Expanded)" (3:57), "Jones Ranch Bull Ring" (1:42), "Oval Office: Nixon, Dean, Haldeman & Ehrlichman (Expanded)" (5:00), "Haldeman/Erlichman Walk (Expanded)" (3:37), "The Rockefeller Party (Expanded)" (5:42), "The Jones Ranch Barbecue" (1:59), and "The Director's Closing Remarks" (3:04).
Lastly, we get the film's "Theatrical Trailer" (4:30), always a welcome bonus. If Oliver Stone makes you crazy, you'll be excused for passing, but if you've read this far, you no doubt know that Nixon deserves a spot on any videohound's shelf.
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