Near the very end of Nixon, Oliver Stone's surprisingly evenhanded examination of this century's most notorious U.S. president, there is a scene that has Richard M. Nixon (Anthony Hopkins), drunk on Scotch and self-pity, on a final stroll through the White House just a few hours before he departs in disgrace. He finds himself standing before a portrait of John F. Kennedy, his well-born and effortlessly charismatic opponent in the 1960 election, the man who famously dismissed Nixon with a brutally frank appraisal: "The man has no class." Nixon gazes at the portrait for a few moments, then, with more sorrow than resentment, speaks to his long-dead rival. "When they look at you," Nixon says, "they see what they want to be. When they look at me, they see what they are ...."
Even now, two decades after Nixon's resignation from office and one year after his death, it may still be too early for historians to make a full and impartial measure of the man and his achievements. But Stone's sprawling biographical drama, an intimate and impressionistic epic that runs a little past three hours, is a worthy attempt to understand -- or at least begin to understand -- what made Nixon the kind of man he was. Unlike Stone's JFK, a technically dazzling extravaganza of dubious historical accuracy, Nixon contains relatively little of the paranoid conspiracy spinning for which Stone is frequently mocked. (Even when the movie suggests Nixon has knowledge of an anti-Castro plot that somehow morphed into the JFK assassination, Stone stops far short of hinting that Nixon's own hands are bloody.) Instead, Nixon seeks a method behind the madness, a heart of darkness beyond the bodyguard of lies. In the view of Stone and his co-screenwriters, Stephen J. Rivele and Christopher Wilkinson, the saga of Richard Milhous Nixon is an all-American Horatio Alger story as rewritten by a Greek tragedian. As they see it, the very things that drove Nixon to rise above his humble origins are what ultimately caused him to crash and burn.
Nixon is structured in a freeform fashion, allowing Stone to jump back and forth between decades even as it maintains a relentless narrative momentum. The movie begins with Nixon, swilling booze and popping pills, nervously listening to the secretly taped conversations that he knows may implicate him during the ongoing Watergate investigations. From there, Stone springs back to Nixon's hardscrabble, Depression era youth in Southern California, to show how young Richard was shaped by his father (Tom Bower), a stern disciplinarian who tirelessly preached the value of self-reliance, and his mother (Mary Steenburgen), a fiercely righteous Quaker who instilled in Richard a willingness to endure anything and everything in pursuit of his goals. "Strength in this life," she warns him. "Happiness in the next."
As the movie continues its kaleidoscopic swirl through the five decades leading to Nixon's fall from grace, vivid patterns emerge and provocative themes are sounded. Very early, Stone establishes that Nixon is motivated in large part by a fury born of class resentment, a fury directed at Ivy Leaguers -- such as John Kennedy -- who never had to struggle the way he did. Or, perhaps more precisely, the way he chose to. We see young Richard as a student at Whittier College, doggedly trying out for the football team despite his obvious lack of athletic ability. (He later refers to himself as little more than "a tackling dummy.") He is very much his mother's son, and he refuses to admit failure even after the tenth or 20th time he is knocked down.
It is with much the same spirit of indomitable determination that Nixon later manages to revive his political career, even after his "retirement" in the wake of losing the 1962 California gubernatorial election. (A retirement, according to Nixon, that Nixon impulsively announced only to persuade his fed-up wife not to leave him.) Unfortunately, that same determination curdles into something darker and more dangerous as Nixon expands the Vietnam War into Cambodia, then commands his subordinates to plot a Watergate cover-up. Even the indefatigably loyal John Ehrlichman (J.T. Walsh) is forced to admit, "You got people dying because [Nixon] didn't make the varsity football team. You got the Constitution hanging by a thread because the 'Old Man' went to Whittier and not to Yale."
Henry Kissinger (Paul Sorvino) gets to offer a slightly more charitable but equally perceptive verdict: "Can you imagine what this man would have been had he ever been loved?" Left unspoken is another question: just how much was Nixon motivated by a survivor's guilt? He lost two brothers to tuberculosis, and their deaths made it easier for his parents to finance his college studies. Later, during his political career, he benefited just as much from the deaths of John and Robert Kennedy. In a rare moment of self-awareness, he admits to a confidant that his road to power was paved by "four bodies."
Don't misunderstand: Nixon is neither a revisionist tract nor an apologetic whitewash. The movie doesn't stint on portraying Nixon as a mean-spirited, foul-mouthed misanthrope who could fly into vindictive rages at the drop of a Washington Post headline. He brings out the worst in his associates -- encourages it, really -- so that the various buggings and burglaries collectively known as Watergate appear to be, if not Nixon's own idea, then certainly the product of an us-versus-them mindset that he actively sustained. The Nixon of Nixon is an eternal outsider, brilliant in his perception of geopolitics but painfully clumsy in his insecurities and lack of social graces. And, yes, utterly amoral and totally remorseless in waging an endless war against the media, the Ivy Leaguers, the political adversaries -- in short, all of the "enemies" who might somehow undercut the illusion of mastery that Nixon labored so long to manufacture.
Anthony Hopkins neither looks nor sounds a great deal like the real Richard Nixon, and it is no small measure of his skill that, after the first ten minutes or so of Nixon, none of that matters. Rather than attempt a letter-perfect impersonation with makeup and vocal trickery, Hopkins gives us the powerfully evocative essence of the character as Stone and his screenwriters have interpreted him. The transparently phony smiles, the quicksilver rages, the sense of a man uncomfortable inside his own skin -- Hopkins conveys all of this, and much more, in a performance that ranks with the very best he has ever offered. Some commentators have already joked about the appropriateness of having Nixon portrayed by the same actor who played Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs. But if you really want to see a precedent for Hopkins' performance here, go back and take a look at Mike Newell's The Good Father, the searing drama that has Hopkins cast as a recently divorced solicitor who channels his rage into pursuing another ex-husband's custody battle. There, too, you will find a chilling portrait of an isolated man who is sustained only by the furies that may ultimately destroy him.
Stone surrounds Hopkins with a dream cast of familiar faces, all the better for the audience to keep track of the various satellites in Nixon's orbit. The most prominent co-star is Joan Allen, who plays Pat Nixon as a compassionate and intelligent woman who somehow wills herself to see the man she loves beneath the monster he becomes. Many of the other supporting players -- Sorvino as Kissinger, E.G. Marshall as John Mitchell, Madeline Kahn as Martha Mitchell and David Paymer as Ron Ziegler -- are seen too fleetingly to make much impact. But they are no less convincing than those actors who are given enough screen time to create at least two-dimensional characters. Chief among the latter: Steenburgen as Hannah Nixon, James Woods as H.R. Haldeman, Powers Boothe as Alexander Haig, David Hyde Pierce as John Dean and Walsh as John Ehrlichman. (There's a delicious irony to the casting of Walsh, the same actor who played Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward in Wired.) Only Bob Hoskins as J. Edgar Hoover comes across as a caricature, though that may be due more to the way the role is written than anything Hoskins does.
Nixon would be a far better film if Stone had managed to curb his appetite for meaningless technical flourishes and other distracting grandstanding. There may have been some purpose to his self-conscious aesthetics in a movie as determinedly surreal as Natural Born Killers. In Nixon, however, when he switches between film stocks, or alternates between color and black and white in the same sequence, it comes across as nothing more than stylistic overkill . Other stunts -- time-lapse photography of rolling clouds and rushing traffic, overlapping images in a single shot -- reveal Stone at his showoff-y worst. He has a fascinating and genuinely tragic story to tell in Nixon. It's a shame he didn't trust his ability to tell that story in a less gimmicky fashion. But never mind. In the end, content triumphs over style, and Nixon emerges as one of the year's most accomplished and engrossing films.
Directed by Oliver Stone. With Anthony Hopkins and Joan Allen.
Get the Film & TV Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.