Stone’s Nixon is a surprisingly sympathetic portrait of America’s 37th President
By Jimmy Gillman
Oliver Stone’s Nixon is a surprisingly sympathetic portrait of the 37th President from a filmmaker well known for being one of his harshest critics. And while nearly all of Richard Nixon’s transgressions are detailed reaching back to his challenging childhood in California, this exceptional biopic tries hard to present, if not a balanced then, a humanistic view of the failed leader.
Probably the biggest obstacle to appreciating Oliver Stone's Nixon the film is the casting of Anthony Hopkins in the lead, mostly because the heralded British actor doesn’t look anything like the real-life politician. But Hopkins is so effective at capturing and recreating Nixon’s mannerisms, speech patterns and paranoid character that in no time viewers will accept him as the real deal.
The same is true of the supporting cast, an incredible ensemble of top-name performers, many of whom physically resemble their characters, and each of whom is able to convey the outward qualities and inner conflicts of a life spent serving a brilliant but flawed man who as an adult was never able to develop a closeness with other people; the lone exception his wife, Pat (Joan Allen, outstanding).
Using a cradle-to-grave approach, Nixon periodically flashes back to young Nixon’s difficult early years, delving into his relationship with his mother, the devoutly religious Hannah, the most influential person in Nixon’s life. These insightful interludes achieve great depth and are not token additions to the screenplay or story, brought to life as well by Mary Steenburgen’s moving (and at times chilling) portrayal of Hannah, and David Barry Gray and Corey Carrier’s performances as the 19-year old and 12-year old Nixon, respectively.
The Nixon family life was a hard one; they moved frequently and enjoyed little prosperity, and the future president could only watch as two of his four brothers suffered agonizing, premature deaths; one from tuberculosis, another from tubercular meningitis.
Playing with convention, director and co-writer Stone shoots many of the flashback sequences in color and key present-day scenes in high-contrast black & white, an extremely effective technique that adds a mythic, sometimes Shakespearian tone to this engrossing drama; just one of several ways in which Stone shows his command of both the cinematic medium and the Nixon story.
Most of the Nixon red-letter dates and incidents are covered, including the famous “Checkers Speech,” the Kennedy-Nixon presidential debates, his failed 1960 run for the White House and his triumphant victory in the 1968 election.
Vietnam, Watergate and other crises are dealt with in detail as are many of Nixon’s questionable backroom dealings with shadowy financiers and power players, including CIA Director Richard Helms (Sam Waterston).
Nixon also shows that by 1970, the Nixon administration was already embroiled in domestic intelligence gathering, which involved a host of illegal activities, including bribery, improper use of Federal offices and personnel, perjury, obstruction of justice, wire-tapping, extortion, character assassination, tax evasion and more.
Despite these reenactments, Nixon is not merely historically episodic—Nixon the man is confronted head-on, not in an effort to mitigate his behavior or actions, but to enable audiences to see behind the headlines and history, albeit if some of that history is purely conjecture.
Author’s Note: A new Director’s Cut of Nixon was released in 2008 incorporating additional footage not included in previous editions. It runs approximately 213 minutes and is by far the most complete and best version of the film.