Starting as a two-bit, bungled burglary at Washington’s Watergate complex, cascading to a likely impeachment vote after the “smoking gun” is heard on a secret tape which dooms him to the humiliation of resignation, Anthony Hopkins as Oliver Stone’s Nixon, shattered and close to the emotional brink, stands before an appropriately reflective portrait of JFK and says, “They look at you and see what they want to be. They look at me and see what they are.” It’s a stinging moment because it’s catheterizing: the words burrow not only into Hopkins but also into us—as insertions of excruciating self-recognition. The complexities of Richard Nixon were and remain his pathologies of pettiness, hate, lies and fabrication of enemies, which held hostage an entire nation; the movie Nixon is now rather like a Cliff’s Notes of reminders that history repeats itself.  

Not fully satisfactory as a workup, the surprise of Nixon is that it’s Stone being balanced, even honorable. The caveat is that it’s as balanced and honorable a portrait of Nixon that he, as the kind of prejudicial and provoking artist that he is, could make. His respectability isn’t the same as fact; the screenplay’s based on what’s published, including slimy suppositions and contradiction, and then fed to us as a JFK-like smörgĺsbord of conjecture: that Nixon got involved with attempting to execute Castro (but the mess backfired and JFK was assassinated as punishment); that he was involved in Bobby Kennedy’s death; and somehow he’s implicated in the shooting of George Wallace. Stone’s not above putting accusations of crimes into Pat Nixon’s mouth: she reminds Nixon that she knows what he did to Alger Hiss. With Stone postulating, Nixon becomes a poorly edited Reader’s Digest version of Fawn M. Brodie’s Richard Nixon: The Shaping of His Character: lots of smeary quotes, gossipy tidbits, truncated flashbacks, but no real basic shaping. Cautioning about the psychologies of deception, of envy, of dealing with enemies, and how they nearly always boomerang when used to maintain power, Stone strives for examination but the infusion of an overload of junked up technology causes unintended the danger: we may want to accept simplifications over Tricky Dicky’s involution. Through fuzzy-of-meaning flashbacks, which include scenes of Nixon’s parents Frank and Hannah, Stone tries to establish the origins of behavior, but what’s missing—like when at seven Dick slammed a hatchet into the head of a six-year-old boy after refusing to give him a jar of pollywogs; like Nixon’s long-term agitation reaching an understandable apex when believing he was robbed of the 1960 Presidential election when Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley managed to coalesce questionable votes to secure Illinois in the Kennedy column—confirm the inability to locate root beginnings and linking manifestations. (To be fair, they might be there: he offered up a director’s cut running over 4 and a half hours, which I haven’t yet found the patience to see, the consequence after viewing all three of his versions of Alexander.) Stone’s intent to be cautious—to make Nixon justly complex instead of a petty rat—is what makes the movie a less than rousing muckraker. Unlike his JFK—a refutist’s grand mal, a long spasm of theories explored to tantalize and stagger with possibilities and at the same time giving us every opportunity to think the worst possible thoughts about everybody. 

Not unexpected, the Nixon daughters hurriedly issued a public condemnation of the movie when released in 1995. Watching their father through Hopkins they probably blanched at hurtful memories when they heard this Nixon warn about “the lie” and “the cover up.” And just as likely in deep pain when they watch Hopkins achieve an extraordinary intense dimension built from torment: when his Nixon asks Paul Sorvino’s Kissinger to kneel with him and pray (a far cry from the travesty of Kissinger and Nixon that turns a German Machiavelli and a borderline psychopath into pop up comic books); when Hopkins is consoled by Joan Allen’s Pat just before they climb the White House steps to the presidential quarters for one of the last times; when Hopkins verbatims Nixon’s farewell to the White House staff. Not possible to be unaffected by these slides into dissolution, Hopkins validates and makes poignant the famous Nixon imagery. When Stone and Hopkins started filming, the Welsh actor was deep in prosthetics and voice duplication but the aids didn’t work; no matter how good an actor, he couldn’t find an actor’s way to rise above the weight of caricature as verdict. Dropping the tricks, his Nixon manages to take hold to become a real reach into the man that all the other Nixon performances have shied away from, as no director had the guts to try for a psyche study. (In Washington Behind Closed Doors, for example, Jason Robards reinterpreted Nixon’s idiosyncrasies and mannerisms through the filter of a secure actor having fun. Never looking this tired—it must have been all the jowlish frowning—Rip Torn in Blind Ambition appears so exhausted by all his mimicking of Nixon that he turns into a mechanical contraption.)  

The star-studded cast unobjectionable: Madeline Kahn as big mouth Martha Mitchell very funny; a wonderful bit of E. G. Marshall as John Mitchell in shadow; David Hype Pierce’s John Dean a semi-serious equivalent to Sandy Dennis’ ditzy Dean in Nasty Habits; Sorvino looking a little too Sadat-tanned but getting Henry’s speechiness down quite well. And last but not least, Joan Allen as Pat: here’s a first lady we still know next to nothing about, and even if Stone claims sufficient research, this Pat is conceived as the public wants to see her—the public “silent majority” emblem suffering for her husband’s sins. If Kahn is close to looking like Martha, Allen’s resemblance to Pat is spooky in several ways, delineating her secret needling when she tells Hopkins, “I know why people hate you” and her bitterness as a result from a lack of love, affection and sex. She’s also a chain-smoker (the real Pat died of lung cancer) and drinker. The in-denial Nixon girls tell us their parents weren’t drinkers but the evidence of closeted imbibing is extremely strong. Considering the pressures, you can’t condemn the refuge to the bottle. And there’s some truthy connection to Nixon’s charge that Pat’s stroke in 1976 was precipatated by the detailing in Woodward and Bernstein’s The Final Days

The aftereffects of Nixon’s legacy continued to pervert: in a defining, foretelling moment for the entire world to see, Robert Dole would sob at his funeral. The foremost Nixon apologist William Safire said on an A & E Biography (and elsewhere) that Nixon “redeemed himself” by end, conveniently ignoring the additional tapes of his Watergate-era “hates” mocking the salvation. As we reluctantly if not ingloriously accept as presumption that lying is par for presidents, this obscenity now extends to cheerfully voting for a known compulsive liar: the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue has told, as of this writing, a record of more than 1000 documented lies in his first eight months in office.

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Text COPYRIGHT © 2005 RALPH BENNER  (Revised 9/2017) All Rights Reserved.