Welsh actor Anthony Hopkins gives a bum impersonation but a towering performance in Nixon as the infamous Tricky Dick. He digs deeply into the pain and the paranoia of the 37th president. “They jump all over me ’cause it’s Nixon,” he says, crying in his scotch and on the shoulder of wife Pat (Joan Allen is uncanny and unforgettable) just before the Watergate scandal forces his 1974 resignation. “They’ve always hated Nixon.”
Oliver Stone knows the feeling. Critics, myself included, jump all over Stone for fobbing off speculation as truth (JFK) and for using broad strokes (Natural Born Killers) as if detail work is for sissies. It’s good to have Stone around breathing fire — a provocateur in a film industry of sellouts and sequel makers — but it would be better if he stopped distorting facts to make them more marketable. Richard Nixon used the same tricks. Harry Truman said that if Nixon had to stick to the truth, “he’d have very little to say.” The same is often said about Stone.
That’s what makes this three hour-plus epic, despite its historical compromises, such mesmerizing puppet theater. Nixon reveals as much about the director who pulls the strings as the politician whose life story he tracks from a stern Quaker childhood through achievement and disgrace. Who better than Stone to understand this teller of truth and lies, this brilliant strategist and petty tyrant, this media hater and manipulator with an inbred persecution complex and an obsession with the Kennedys, conspiracies and cover-ups? Nixon — the poor boy from Whittier, Calif, the awkward outsider who distrusted wealth and intellect — saw himself in grandiose terms as a statesman. Stone — the son of a Wall Street player gone belly up, the rebel member of the elite who broke from his class by volunteering to serve in the Vietnam War — also views himself on the grand scale. Both men have been called lunatics, but never losers. Nixon was elected president twice; astonishingly, his 1994 funeral brought out five presidents whose office he had dishonored. Stone has won two Oscars for directing; it’s his controversial films that earn the biggest profits. If there weren’t a Nixon for Stone to build a film around, he’d have to invent him.
In some ways he has. Stone’s published script for Nixon, written with Stephen J. Rivele and Christopher Wilkinson, comes with 168 footnotes. It’s the slickest trick of all, a hodgepodge gussied up as scholarship. The sources dip as low as Anthony Summers’ Official and Confidential: The Secret Life of J. Edgar Hoover, a chance for Stone to indulge in his usual gay bashing. Hoover (Bob Hoskins), whom Nixon used to wiretap his enemies, is shown flirting with a Hispanic kitchen boy, as if homosexuality were the key to the FBI chief’s perversion of power. Even dodgier are Nixon’s bedroom scenes with Pat, the wife he called Buddy. She enters tipsy and nuzzles him for sex. “I don’t need that, Buddy,” Nixon says. “I’m not Jack Kennedy.” Stricken, she tells him the people will never love him like Kennedy, “no matter how many elections you win.” Only the sterling acting of Hopkins and Allen prevents 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. from becoming Melrose Place.
Technically the film is a marvel. Stone and his crew, notably cinematographer Robert Richardson, and editors Hank Corwin and Brian Berdan, jump back and forth through 50 years of Nixon’s life with dazzling dexterity. The squeeze reduces most performances to cameos, though James Woods (H.R. Haldeman), Powers Boothe (Alexander Haig), David Hyde Pierce (John Dean), E.G. Marshall (John Mitchell) and Madeline Kahn (Martha Mitchell) register strongly.
Some of the political material is bizarrely chosen. Nixon’s accomplishments in China are reduced to the president and Henry Kissinger (a wryly funny Paul Sorvino) making small talk with Mao Tse-tung, who calls their flattery fung pi (bullshit). He wants to know how a fat man like Kissinger “gets so many girls.” The fung pi also flows in a scene at the Lincoln Memorial in which Nixon and a young female war protester engage in a fabricated chat about how Nixon can’t tame the “beast,” the script’s shrill term for the CIA, the mob, the military and big business. The beast kills those who get in its way; for example, JFK.
The film links Nixon with a plan to kill Fidel Castro. Dallas star Larry Hagman plays a Texas tycoon who fails to enlist Nixon in a plot against Kennedy. Who shot JFK? It’s J.R.; he’s part of the beast. Nixon mourns his old enemy, though expressing his feelings comes hard. Stone suggests that the emotionally remote Hannah (Mary Steenburgen), the mother Nixon called a saint, had a ruinous effect on her son.
Is the film hinting that all Nixon needed was a hug? In the New York Times, Frank Rich accuses Stone of sentimentalizing a scoundrel, while Newsweek insists that Nixon is shown “with all his malevolence … intact.” Stone has us media types just where he wants us — chasing our own tails. Let the experts challenge Stone’s view of a boozing Nixon railing at the “cock-suckers” out to bring him down. That hard-ass Nixon is Stone’s kind of guy.
Stone’s sympathy for Nixon is the source of the film’s surprise and blunt power. Robert Altman’s stinging, low-budget 1984 film Secret Honor made wicked sport of a delusional Nixon. Stone takes the opposite tack, presenting the tale as Shakespearean tragedy and filming it like Citizen Kane on a $43 million budget. Maybe it’s all a Stone plot to romanticize Nixon and himself as misunderstood men in the arena. Who’d put it past him? But small, telling moments in the film — the best moments — reveal a new and welcome evenhandedness in Stone that offers Nixon compassion without absolution. It’s gripping psychodrama — just don’t confuse Nixon with history. The revelation that comes with unbiased research remains a Stone’s throw away.