Adding one more panel to his obsessional film portrait of American traumas of the 1960s and early 1970s, Oliver Stone now attempts to put his finger on the self-destructive demons deep within Richard Nixon’s character, to decidedly mixed results. Highlighted by numerous strong scenes that go a considerable way toward suggesting the key elements in the 37th president’s complex personality, “Nixon” far overstays its welcome with an increasingly tedious final hour devoted largely to slogging through the minutiae of Watergate. Not the lethal broadside many might have expected, pic is inescapably interesting due to the parade of recent history on view, but it finally emerges as an honorable, and rather too strenuous, failure.
Commercial outlook is highly questionable and dependent upon many factors, including how stirred the media and political establishment will feel to debate the film’s merits, and how intrigued the public will be, not only by the Nixon name, but by a Stone picture that is uncharacteristically uncontroversial.
Stone and his writers have covered most of the bases of Nixon’s life — his impoverished, religiously strict Quaker upbringing in rural California, his sometimes strained marriage and remoteness as a father, his political ups and downs and amazing central role in several of the key dramas of this century — and do so in a chronologically jumbled manner that lends the proceedings an inelegant shape but endeavors to provide a continual feast of revelations.
Through it all, the filmmakers admirably try to steer the epic yarn in an inward direction, attempting to explain why, as Howard Hunt says, “He’s the darkness reaching out for the darkness,” or, as Nixon himself crucially asks when Watergate is closing in on him, “Why do they hate me so?”
The answers — a lifelong inferiority complex stemming from his critical father, lackluster academic credentials and homely appearance, the early deaths of his brothers, his impulse to turn political adversaries into personal enemies , his inability to connect with people on an intimate basis — may strike some as amateur Freudianizing, but they would also seem to have more than a bit of truth to them.
In fact, if Stone had stuck with an intense, claustrophobic view of his subject and his closest associates, the picture might have been considerably more powerful, as well as being mercifully shorter. Although “Nixon” more or less holds the attention throughout due to the absorbing history on parade, this is one film in which the viewer feels every one of its 190 minutes.
For starters, pic could have dispensed with the excess of selections from the Oliver Stone stock library of traumatic ’60s events; by now, this footage plays like a ritual in a Stone film, so that it takes on the feel of an obligatory highlights reel.
Beginning with the cause and effect of Watergate, pic slides back in time to Nixon’s loss to JFK in the 1960 election –“They stole it fair and square,” one of his advisers quips — and finally back to 1925, with young Dick Nixon in Whittier. Storytelling jumps around willy-nilly in the early going, vaulting ahead to 1962 and Nixon’s humiliating loss in the California gubernatorial race and his promise to wife Pat that he’ll retire forever from public life.
In one of several nods to “Citizen Kane,” an utterly inauthentic mock “March of Time” recounts numerous aspects of Nixon’s political career. One of the film’s most successful recurring motifs is Nixon’s haunted feeling that he climbed to power over the bodies of the dead Kennedys, as well as his lifelong sense that he lived in their shadows.
Looking at JFK’s portrait on the wall as he prepares to leave the White House after his resignation,
Nixon plaintively says, “When they look at you, they see what they want to be. When they look at me, they see what they are.”
On it goes, through Nixon’s dubious Cuban criminal connections that led to his links with the Watergate plumbers, his complicity with J. Edgar Hoover and his winning the presidency on the promise of ending the Vietnam War. Weirdly, tale jumps immediately from his victory to the decision to bomb the hell out of Cambodia and the subsequent Kent State massacre.
One of the best scenes shows the president’s annoyed but complex reaction to the Kent State tragedy while having dinner with his inner circle on his yacht, but this is shortly followed by one of the worst sequences, in which Nixon visits the Lincoln Memorial at 4 a.m. and engages a bunch of hostile students in an awkward discussion.
To Nixon’s fury, the mounting details of Watergate come to overwhelm media and public interest in his genuine achievements, and pic’s long final act takes its preordained course as all the king’s men take the fall while Nixon awaits his fate drinking through the night and listening again and again to his incriminating tapes.
Francois Truffaut once suggested that Ingmar Bergman, the most psychologically oriented of filmmakers, would have been the ideal director for a film of “The Final Days,” and there’s a touch of such an approach in these later reels.
Unfortunately, there is also far too much Watergate compared with earlier matters that are scarcely mentioned or dramatized, such as what led Nixon into politics in the first place, what shaped his ideology, and his early implementation of dirty tricks despite his moral upbringing. In large measure due to its familiarity, the third hour feels terribly drawn out.
Anthony Hopkins’ central performance as Nixon elicits a complicated reaction. In the psychological realm, in locating what he and Stone decided was important in making Nixon tick, in conveying the awareness that his character is a man difficult, if not impossible, to love, he’s done an excellent job.
In his consummately actorly way, he convinces the viewer to go along with his rendition of one of modern history’s most familiar figures, while adding the vulnerable, personal side that was not often seen. But physically and vocally, he’s just not entirely convincing, and one never really forgets that this is an actor giving his best impression of a terribly famous man.
The same could be said for nearly everyone else in the enormous cast, no matter how well they perform. Paul Sorvino, for instance, catches Kissinger’s basso voice and phrasings very well, but there is a simultaneous amusement to be had in the stunt of portraying such a distinctive personalty. Powers Boothe as Alexander Haig, E.G. Marshall as John Mitchell, Madeleine Kahn as Martha Mitchell, David Hyde Pierce as John Dean and James Woods as H.R. Haldeman are among the more convincing of the impersonations, while Bob Hoskins and Brian Bedford outrageously portray J. Edgar Hoover and Clyde Tolson as a couple of old queens about whom everyone seems to know the truth.
The one performer who cuts deeper is Joan Allen, who gives her Pat Nixon a surprising dimensionality and often touching humanity. This is a public figure no one pretended to understand well, but Allen provides great insight into a woman who stood by her man through it all, but not without taking him to task for his personal failings and confronting him constantly when he was wrong.
Technically, film is impressive, with some of the White House sets modified from “The American President” and shot in a versatile variety of styles by Robert Richardson. But the mixing of 35mm, video-like images, black-and-white and docu footage, so effective in “JFK” and “Natural Born Killers,” seems more arbitrary here and becomes needlessly annoying at times.