By Scott Ross
JFK made an almost infinitely greater amount of money and received far more press, but Nixon is, to my eyes and ears, Oliver Stone’s masterpiece: A sharp, sprawling, shockingly fulsome character portrait of Shakespearean depth and tragic overtone. Stone and his co-scenarists, Stephen J. Rivele and Christopher Wilkinson, offer a remarkably supple and surprisingly sympathetic characterization of the 20th century’s American Richard III, evoking a strange pity even in those, like this writer, who despise our 38th President in nearly every way. Stone and his collaborators are abetted enormously by the central performance by Anthony Hopkins, which is remarkable on any number of levels, not the least of which is his intelligent eschewing of either direct imitation or prosthetics. Joan Allen gives a transcendent performance as Pat Nixon, and Mary Steenburgen’s steely presence as Nixon’s immovable mother Hannah gives you a stunning understanding of just how searing it must have been to the man’s psyche to have that women — and whom he repeatedly, and one feels, reflexively and guiltily, referred to as “a saint” — for a mother. The supporting cast is uniformly splendid: David Hyde Pierce as John Dean, Paul Sorvino as Kissinger, Madeline Kahn as Martha Mitchell, Ed Harris as E. Howard Hunt, Bob Hoskins as J. Edgar Hoover, and especially James Woods as H.R. Haldeman.
Powers Boothe, E.G. Marshall, David Paymer, the late J.T. Walsh, Brian Bedford, Tony Goldwyn, Edward Herrmann, Fyvush Finkel, Larry Hagman, John Cunningham, George Plimpton and James Karen also appear.
John Williams wrote a spectacularly successful score, and the hyper-kinetic editing is by Brian Berdan and Hank Corwin. The DVD “Director’s Cut” is worth watching for a chilling sequence, unfortunately deleted from the theatrical release, between Nixon and Sam Waterson as the then-CIA director Richard Helms that makes all too clear that our Presidents serve at the pleasure of the Deep State and not, as is so often assumed, vice-versa. The only embarrassing moments are those concerning Hoskins’ Hoover, all too winkingly informed by Stone’s Monday morning political quarterbacking; if you know anything about Hoover’s circumspection, you can only roll your eyes as he cruises Marine guards at Tricia Nixon’s wedding. (These scenes also recall the unsettling homophobia of JFK, which seemed to endorse the reprehensible theory that a cabal of fags were responsible for Kennedy’s murder. Well, what can you expect of a movie that lionizes Jim Garrison?)
The box-office failure of a picture as intelligent and impassioned as Nixon brings into broad relief the difficulty of (and Hollywood’s sadly justifiable resistance to) creating smart, rigorous political movies. Americans do not like their history unless it is burnished by celebratory whitewashing, but only a fool — or a rank hypocrite —could subject Richard Milhous Nixon to cinematic hagiography.
Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross