*. 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?