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Right off the bat, I want to apologize. In previous reviews I have successfully managed to avoid comparing adapted films with the source material. I sit here facing my computer monitor, writing and erasing and rewriting, but the emotional rivers re: Richard Nixon, run far too deep. That emotion was, and still is, hatred. Student that I was in those days, I hated Richard Nixon because he had, I felt, blatantly lied about his intent to end the war in Vietnam. Such was the perception.
In the film version, Nixon's "failure" to immediately remove troops from Vietnam was a deliberate decision designed to bring both the Soviet Union and, more importantly, Red China into our diplomatic orbit. I'm getting ahead of myself.
Oliver Stone's Nixon runs approximately three hours and five minutes. That's a long time to sit. And Lord knows I tried, but after it was done, I wanted to sit some more. I wanted cappuccino and a crowd of film students to drink it with. I wanted to sit and discuss and analyze this thing way into the night, to better understand why I am so upset by my reaction to it.
I liked it.
Oliver Stone has constructed a portrait of a paranoid and petty man, raised by his mother to believe that he was born to fight to achieve his place in Heaven; that his fight and achievement over the lower economic class he was born into was, essentially, nothing to be proud of, for there would always be those born with the silver spoon in their mouth waiting to bring him down and take it all away.
That demon would bear the name Kennedy, all of whom (Jack, Bobby and Teddy) would sit at the top of the heap of all the pretty boy, Ivy-League educated, Eastern liberal types.
Until the very end, the Nixon we see on screen takes little outward pride in his accomplishment -- his election to this nation's highest office. He is most proud of, and continually refers to and compares his situation to, the bringing down of a well-heeled, Eastern establishment type named Alger Hiss, who lied about his connections to (the Communist Party) back in 1948. Then again, Hiss may have been just a poor schlub who got into Harvard (sic) on a scholarship, which brings to light some of the flaws in Nixon.
The film assumes that we already know many of the names and events seen on the screen. Dialog and speeches are contrasted with historically relevant images -- the rioting at the '68 Democratic Convention and the My Lai massacre are two I'll deal with here -- but the use of these images assumes that the horror of the events is an emotional given. Nixon's speech to the '68 Republican National Convention ("I can bring us together") is contrasted against the rioting at the DNC in Chicago, and makes a strong point. But does it make an impact on anyone who didn't live through those times?
As well, in real life the cast of characters in the real Nixon White House was confusing enough. It is no less so here. Though Bob Haldeman (James Woods) has a relatively substantial role in Stone's film, I still to this day have no idea who his partner in crime John Erlichman was, or what his responsibilities were. Ditto the importance of General Alexander Haig in bringing about a stable transition between presidencies.
Nixon's Presidency was brought down, legally, by the Watergate cover-up. In reality, IMO, it was brought down by the media attention and the televised coverage of the Watergate Hearings. From those hearings, John Dean emerged as a major media "face," yet he has chosen to remain obscure in the following years. For a viewer who had no first hand knowledge of the events, it is Haldeman and the rest of the suits that conceived the cover-up. Dean was a minor player.
Stone continues to play with various film stocks, sizes, exposures, colors, and the use of video in Nixon. It is not nearly as annoying as in Natural Born Killers, but it is annoying nonetheless. And unnecessary. There is too much story to deliver here to necessitate the artsy-fartsy inclusion of a couple of color frames amidst black-and-white film. Or the use of said black-and-white shots to interrupt "present day" footage, when he has established its use to denote flashbacks. Except when he introduces color to the flashbacks, to indicate old 8mm movie film. Or some such thing.
Stone uses many visual sequences (no dialog) to portray events in young Nixon's life. Later, as if (rightfully) distrusting his ability to make us understand these totally visual portrayals, he has characters explain what we have seen. Sometimes twice, sometimes more. In addition, the Pat Nixon character, played by Joan Allen, uses her dialog to analyze Nixon's emotional states. His inability to enjoy his success, to virtual inability to share his feelings with those around him.
It is a good thing Stone does this. Three hours is a loooong time to keep all these things straight. Watergate was confusing enough in the time it took to play itself out, let alone in the three hours it gets on screen.
But then, the film is not about all those things. It is a perception about the man at the center of the maelstrom, named Richard Nixon, who is now conveniently dead so he can't sue for defamation of character. His character is portrayed by Anthony Hopkins, who looks nothing like the real thing. It doesn't matter. You can see the bottled-up emotion in his eyes. In the tightly-wound way the real Nixon carried himself.
In a most telling scene, the candidate Nixon waits to address the 1968 Republican National Convention. He stands in the dark, his face a blank template. Behind him lights rise, revealing his family and top dog supporters. Then his face is bathed in spotlight, the hideous grin manifests itself and the skin at the sides of his eyes wrinkles, the shoulders scrunch, the arms come up. Suddenly I am looking at the classic Richard Nixon, and it is downright scary.
Anthony Hopkins' performance is mind-blowing, right down to the tiniest detail. The contrasts between the man we all saw and the man that was deeply buried, whose emotions were kept under lock and key and released only on the day of his daughter's wed ding, or in the moment that he convinced Pat not to divorce him, are astounding to see.
The character Anthony Hopkins has created for Nixon is magnificent. Nixon's promise "never" to resign, offset by the reality that resigning will allow him to fight to keep his tapes private. The fight is the meaning of his life. His father died having "nothing in the bank." Nixon died with his tapes.
It is enough to make me feel sympathy for the SOB. And that upsets me all to hell.
Nixon loses points for its three-hour length and the distracting visual stuff, but gains most of it back due to Hopkin's incredible performance. Cranky suggests you take a break at 2 hours 15 min (James Woods as Bob Haldeman raves some nonsense about the Cubans and the JFK assassination), and then watch the rest of Anthony Hopkins' astounding performance.
On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Eight Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price for Nixon, he would have paid . . .
Almost all of which is for Hopkins' performance.
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