Nixon (1995)

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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, often astonishingly 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 Richard III, evoking a strange pity even in those, like this writer, who despise our 38th President in nearly every particular. 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 shattering 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 his psyche to have that women — whom he repeatedly, and one feels, reflexively, referred to as “a saint” — for a mother. The supporting cast is astonishing: 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 the great 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 is worth watching for a chilling sequence, cut from the theatrical release, between Nixon and Sam Waterson as CIA director Richard Helms. 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 movie as intelligent and impassioned as Nixon brings into broad relief the difficulty of (and Hollywood’s sadly justifiable resistance to) creating rigorous political movies. Americans do not like their history unless it is burnished by celebratory whitewashing.

Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross

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