Oliver Stone: Nixon (1995) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Oliver Stone: Nixon (1995)

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Oliver Stone retreats from the realm of the overtly provocative to examine the private life of possibly the most divisive figure in Presidential history.  Anthony Hopkins stars in Stone's Nixon.DisgraceAndrewCommentaryBannerOliver Stone’s last cinematic foray proved to be one of the most divisive films produced.  Try as we might, not even you and I were immune to this effect.  But if there’s one thing I hope we can agree on it’s that Natural Born Killers did not lack passion.  You may feel that it’s misdirected, but there’s not a single frame in the film that doesn’t feel directly touched by Stone in some way.  I loved NBK, and that’s part of why Stone’s Nixon is such a disappointment.

The first problem is that Nixon’s life, with its duplicitous machinations and considerable accomplishments, seems like such an obvious target for Stone that he barely gets involved in the project.  I knew the film was going to be trouble when the opening text was that old Biblical chestnut about the price of gaining a kingdom if you lose your soul.  That’s a tad too obvious observation to start the film on and nothing much is done to defer from Stone’s overly broad approach, especially when we get into dialogue like “If only Nixon had been loved.”

I know that this is speculative, Stone reminds us as such, but did it all have to be so boring?  Stone has trafficked in multiple films about “True” events that were infused with energy and experimentation.  Aside from reproducing certain televised watershed moments in Nixon’s history, like when Stone inserts Hopkins into the debate with Kennedy, it’s just a list of events to check off in a relatively straight-forward nonlinear fashion.  Is it too much to ask a bit of shadow or light about the disgraced President?

Stone doesn’t seem willing to, and in what is at least a commendable gesture tries to treat Nixon as a human beyond Watergate.  But all the episodes of his life don’t come together in a grand narrative and keep from each other.  Things get worse when Stone starts playing into the more speculative side of the story and other figures are brought in with unclear narrative purpose.  Take Bob Hoskins as J. Edgar Hoover – Hoskins is playing the role like a brutal thug, is written like a hedonist, and appears with little warning.  Nothing about the role feels right, and even if played as intended I’m unsure of what Stone is trying to carry out with these side characters other than to pad the film out.

Every encounter in JFK brought more mystery; here it’s just another conversation to weather.  Even Hopkins, a sometimes brilliant but otherwise good performer, seems completely confused about what he’s supposed to be doing from scene to scene.  It’s because he’s representing one aspect of Nixon at a time and the narrative, since it’s fractured, never collects into a character with an arc, just a bunch of vague sketches about what Stone seems to think about Nixon.At least he's still lovedKyle Commentary BannerWe are in agreement. It seems to me that Stone is trying to make myth out of Nixon's presidency—to take what has already carved a place for itself in American history and treat it as grand tragedy. One of the problems here is that sometimes, as you mentioned, Stone wants to humanize Nixon as a great man brought down by a fatal personal flaw, while at other times he seems primarily concerned with showing him as a man of ambition out of his depth and overwhelmed by “the beast” that is the American political system. The result is a strange character that seems to alternate between an intelligent, observant political player and a sweaty nervous wreck who blames others for his own ineptitude.

I think Hopkins is better at playing the latter. In these scenes he creates a version of Nixon that is pathetic, paranoid, and obsessed with his own victimization. He hobbles hunched over through dark rooms in the White House, whisky in hand listening to classical music. He is permanently on the defensive, fixated on what he perceives to be an unfair, silver-spoon advantage of a family like the Kennedys, and always ready to defend against criticism with a calculated, if unconvincing explanation of who else is to blame (it is, of course, never Nixon).

One of my favorite touches is how he slips into moments of dialogue where he refers to himself in the third person—moments that betray his true concern, which is the iconic place in history he wishes to occupy. “I'd like to offer my condolences to those families. But Nixon can't,” he confides to a cabinet member on the Kent State shootings. Or, speaking to his wife about his political enemies: “It's not the war - It's Nixon! They want to destroy Nixon!” He has created an image of himself that directly reflects the political and social importance he needs to occupy, and Hopkins plays him as a man just one desperate step ahead of accepting that this is an illusion.

If this was the primary focus of the movie—and if Stone were able to create an arc or fluctuation for the character to travel in relation it—then Nixon could be a brilliant example of historical fiction. But here's the issue: the movie is 3 ½ hours long. There is far too much material here that either has nothing really to do with exploring these emotional and psychological issues, or that simply repeats what we've gathered from earlier scenes. How many times did Stone think it was necessary to put Hopkins in front of a podium sweaty and squinting and hunched over like Quasimodo?

An early scene shows a historic meltdown in which Nixon, following an election defeat, delivers a conference chastising the press and taunting them that they “...won't have Dick Nixon to kick around anymore.” It very clearly shows a person dealing with his own failing by positioning himself as a victim and blaming the rest of the world. We don't see too much more of how he reached that state (childhood flashbacks never fully contextualize the adult man), and he never moves out of it—he just stays there whining, albeit with effective pitifulness, for 3 more hours.Nixon triumphant

So, where's the controversy?

Tiny Andrew CommentaryNonexistent with the film as it stands.  Stone tries for the neutral zone so often that even Nixon’s considerable crimes that led to an unprecedented abdication of power fails to bring charge to any negative aspect of his life.  Even the positive moments, like Nixon’s attempts at deepening relations with China, are tempered with just enough negativity to dull them.  By aiming toward the center he stirs no feeling one way or another.

Tiny Kyle CommentaryIn humanizing a president so notorious for bringing shame to the highest political office in the country? I phrase that as a question because Stone jumps around so much it's hard to tell how sympathetic he wants the audience to be at any given time. When Hopkins is most effective, Nixon warrants our pity, but not forgiveness. There are also times where the movie seems poised to make the argument that Nixon was on the verge of bringing tremendous success and improvements to America before being ruined over fairly run-of-the-mill shady dealings—the suggestion that such dealings are a necessary evil in politics, even at the presidential level, may have held the potential for controversy at one time, but not by the point this movie was made.On his way down

How did Stone hit the zeitgeist this time?

Tiny Andrew CommentaryFuturama’s portrayal of Nixon is more influential.  As talented as the folks who make that show are, I shouldn’t be saying this about the man who gave us JFK.



Tiny Kyle CommentaryPart of what's so strange about the movie's failure is that it doesn't really speak to contemporary America or give a full and immersive view of the time period it takes place in. No controversy, no zeitgeist.


A picture of confidence

That's fine, but is it any good?

Tiny Andrew CommentaryNope.  It’s competently made and you’d have to find something with a huge bone to pick with Stone to find much that’s wrong.  But there’s not much that’s right about the film.  Stone made a perfunctory story that seemed like a logical step forward but retreated into bland ground.  Almost everything we’ve seen before, love or hate it, felt essential.  This is the movie High School teachers put on when neither they nor the students want to think about much.

Tiny Kyle CommentaryStone has the ability to assemble tremendously impressive elements into movies I either dislike or run cold on more than most other directors I can think of. Nixon is an example of a whole being less than the sum of its parts. There are wonderful elements here, but they don't cohere and often run against each other. It's a shame an editor couldn't knock some sense into Stone early on.

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Next week: U-Turn!

Stone with text

Posted by Andrew

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