Nixon (1995)

*. I think Oliver Stone was one of the more dynamic talents of his generation, but his career travelled a definite arc of rise and fall. He hit the ground running, and writing, with edgy political thrillers like Midnight Express and Salvador, and topical dramas that still pack a punch like Platoon and Wall Street. My own feeling is that he reached his apex with JFK in 1991. After that there was still work of interest, but things were clearly going downhill. Alexander was more than a bit ridiculous. By the time of W. (2008) I was calling him a spent force. Savages (2012) was wretched all the way through.
*. Nixon is a movie very much in the hit-and-miss part of his post-JFK oeuvre, coming between the oddities Natural Born Killers and U-Turn. In retrospect JFK, Nixon, and W. form a sort of presidential trilogy, and I think Nixon again falls in the middle. Parts of it are great. It has the grandiosity and paranoia that typify so much of Stone’s work, and is told in his signature style of a jumpy visual rhythm, but it also falls into some of the hubris, incoherence, and slackness that were symptoms of his decline.
*. As far as the script goes, I think it does a reasonable job of squeezing a biopic out of Nixon’s final days. Though I have to admit that even with a pretty solid grounding in the history of the Watergate affair I still had some trouble following what Stone was implying, or just muttering about. What was “that whole Bay of Pigs” thing they kept mentioning? And then there are all the oblique references to the way the mob/CIA/Cubans really killed Kennedy. I wonder if Stone believes this.
*. The real delight, and disaster, in this movie though is the cast. So let’s go through that.
*. Top billing goes to Anthony Hopkins, who was as surprised as anyone that Stone wanted him to play Nixon. Give the man credit, he does everything he can by way of performance to give us a believable Nixon. Sure he doesn’t look like the very distinctive, and easily caricatured, president, but for Stone this was irrelevant as acting is more an art of expressions and gestures, “as long as the spirit of the man comes across.” Yes, and no. Hopkins doesn’t sound like Nixon either, though again I really appreciate the effort made. He does do a thing with his tongue that I guess was a Nixon mannerism, but aside from that I just didn’t feel like I was watching anything more than a Nixon impersonator struggling madly to keep his head above water. So I have to rate it a fail, even though I think Hopkins does give it his considerable all. It’s just that at some point no actor can overcome miscasting.
*. A couple of other players find themselves stuck in the same hopeless situation. Bob Hoskins as J. Edgar Hoover? Really? No. Just no. Powers Booth as Alexander Haig? He doesn’t register as dirty enough. I like both Hoskins and Booth but they’re way out of place here.
*. As an aside on Hoover, I think Stone would get in trouble today with his presentation of the stereotype of what Gore Vidal called “the villainous fag.” What he does to Hoover here, and Clay Shaw in JFK, is cringeworthy.

*. But there’s a plus side of the ledger. Joan Allen is Pat Nixon. A dead ringer and a solid performance too. James Woods as Bob Haldeman is a home run, just toning down the usual Woods nervousness enough to project an air of absolutely cynical authority. Paul Sorvino must have had fun doing Henry Kissinger’s croaking delivery, and I think he nicely captures the sense of an arrogant individual playing with fire. Finally, even though she’s only on screen for a minute or two, Madeline Kahn is great as the larger-than-life Martha Mitchell.
*. And then there are a few faces I’m still undecided on, even after seeing the movie several times. J. T. Walsh doesn’t look a bit like John Ehrlichman, and I think disappears into the wallpaper a bit too much. David Hyde Pierce must have seemed like a good choice for John Dean, but I feel like something is missing. He has the look, but never gets the chance to show us the scheming intelligence (or blind ambition) that possessed Dean.

*. Stone thought it his “most encapsulated . . . most structured picture.” I think it’s not nearly as tight as JFK. The DVD version, which is 213 minutes, has a bunch of stuff with Sam Waterston playing CIA director Richard Helms that was cut from the theatrical release, perhaps because Helms threatened to sue. Stone claimed artistic reasons. I think it might have been both, as none of those scenes add anything except a bit more of the conspiracy innuendo.
*. So it’s lively, even at the length of the director’s cut, and there’s lots to be enjoyed, especially if you have an interest in the period. I guess not as many people did as the studio might have hoped though, as it bombed. Perhaps if it had been a little more conspiratorial it would have done better. That’s certainly the direction things were trending.
*. I don’t think it adds up to much though. We kick off with an epigraph asking us what good it will do someone to gain the whole world and lose their soul. Not much. Of course, if you don’t believe that you have a soul (immortal or close to it) then gaining the world would be a bargain. Stone remarks on the DVD commentary that this is “one of my favourite quotes in the Bible” (it’s Matthew 16:26) and he wanted to kick things off with it because it introduced the notion of Nixon losing his spiritual side in his rise to power. Actually, Nixon had pretty much lost his faith in college. In the lead-up to Watergate he talked to Kissinger about how his dirty tricks campaign might be going too far, and added “I don’t think we’re losing our soul. If we do, it’ll come back.”
*. The same epigraph, by the way, is used to kick off Caligula. Coincidence?

40 thoughts on “Nixon (1995)


    I saw Nixon at the cinema, and I thought it was not very good as a film or as history.

    I met Stone in LA about 2000, and it’s all been downhill since then for both of us. Draw your own conclusions.

    1. Alex Good Post author

      You can’t say you’ve really seen an Oliver Stone movie until you’ve seen the three different director’s cuts that come out later.

      I’m constantly drawing conclusions around here. Racing to them too.

      1. Bookstooge

        works for me.
        Saves a lot of time too. Plus it is better for the environment.
        And it will help save the whales.
        And end childhood obesity.
        and bring about world peace!

        The possibilities are endless!

      1. Alex Good Post author

        Can’t a fellow sit on his front porch sipping CountryTime lemonade while he watches his well-arranged bins being picked up?

      2. Bookstooge

        The short answer?

        and I’m going to sic Nixon’s head on you for lazing about on a saturday morning. There are lots of bits of nature that need to be stomped this morning…

  2. Bookstooge

    I’d sing you some songs to wake you up, but since i’m not musically inclined, I don’t know any good ones for waking you up. Oh hang on, let me try this one:

      1. Bookstooge

        That is what he CLAIMS, but I don’t believe him any more. Any man who gets up at 2am and bangs pots and pans is capable of anything, even sleeping at 6am on a saturday morning!

    1. Alex Good Post author

      Yikes. That didn’t work out very well.

      Eddie walked into the diner with a grin,
      Inviting all his friends to come on in.
      He ordered burgers, fries, and shakes so sweet,
      And insisted that he would pick up the treat.

      Everyone gathered around the table tight,
      Eddie’s generosity was quite a sight.
      The food was delicious, they couldn’t believe,
      All thanks to Eddie, who was eager to please.

      His kindness made everyone feel so great,
      And they couldn’t wait to reciprocate.
      They made plans to do something fun and new,
      To show Eddie just how much they value.

      For Eddie’s the kind of friend we all adore,
      His heart is so big, you simply can’t ignore.
      And it’s moments like these that bring us so much joy,
      A happy group filled with love and buoy.

      1. Bookstooge

        Well, the first word that pops into my mind when I think of Eddie is “friendlyandgenerous”.

        You can tell because he’s always calling us Bunty. Endearing nicknames are the true mark ofa generous friend…

  3. Lashaan Balasingam @ Roars and Echoes

    I’ve never been too interested in this movie in particular. The last “presidential” movie I saw was Darkest Hour with Oldman as Churchill. I won’t completely disregard it if I’m ever craving these kinds of movies though, I’m curious about Hopkins in this.


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