For almost a decade, by 1995, Oliver Stone had firmly secured his share of the zeitgeist as the angst-ridden, conspiracy-fueled, brilliantly bilateral cinematic voice of American politics and culture. He won his Oscars in the spring of 1987 for his Vietnam melodrama Platoon, and he’d seen acclaim and financial success in equal measure with his 1991 hit, the conspiratorial kaleidoscope, JFK. A few years later, Stone managed to win the box office with a true work of madness, the hyper-violent (and styled within an inch of its life) indictment of media sensationalism, Natural Born Killers. Stone was on a roll with critics and had been somewhat reliable at the box office, so news of a film on the tumultuous life and presidency of Richard Nixon sounded like another homerun for a man who had been putting his own tensile spin on the timeline of our country.
It may have been too late. Nixon was released in 1995 and was an immediate dud. Reviews were mostly positive but uninspiring – Ebert praised it as “one of the year’s best” – but general audiences had moved on from Stone’s freewheeling historical narratives, especially in the aftermath of JFK, a film that’s entire existence is fueled by the endless reach of paranoia that had shaped the narrative of the Kennedy assassination for three decades. With Nixon, it appeared Stone was getting docked for speculation, but the speculation was part of the story with the Kennedy assassination, and perhaps even more a part of the story when it comes to Nixon.
Of all Stone’s films – some terrific, some trashy fun, some downright terrible – I keep coming back to Nixon, and am now convinced of its greatness. It’s the sweet spot for Stone, where his impulsive youthful urges are still prevalent, but tamped down slightly in order to focus on a proper character study. The story of Richard Nixon was the perfect material for a 48-year old Stone; too perfect, perhaps many decided. Stone spinning yarns about the rise and fall of a paranoid, crooked Republican president through the lens of a dozen different film stocks and manic cuts and spiraling conspiracies may have been too on the nose for audiences, so they passed, and Nixon stumbled across the finish line with a paltry $13.6 million domestic gross. International sales bumped the take to $34 million, which was still more than $10 million shy of its budget.
Time can not only improve some films, it can quickly erase the failures of their opening weekend and how much money they made. A film is only a flop for a short while, but if it’s good enough, it will transcend financial shortcomings and stand on its own as a piece of art. Nixon is the rare epic that is able to overcome a stigma of failure, because it’s Oliver Stone at his most balanced, and most considerate. His film follows Richard Milhous Nixon – played by Anthony Hopkins, who wisely sidesteps physical mimicry in his performance – as he rises and falls over his political career. His Quaker upbringing and the death of two brothers at the hands of tuberculosis is visited in flashback, and his defeat at the hand of handsome young John Kennedy in 1960 is an early focal point.
The meat of the picture – Nixon’s presidency, his mishandling of Vietnam, and the Watergate scandal – is the most compelling stretch of filmmaking in Stone’s career. It begins hopeful and energetic, but along the way as the bombs fall and the evidence against an increasingly manic Nixon mounts, that positive energy seamlessly transitions to an ominous, threatening collapse of one man’s idea of America, and of the America he could have shaped. The shadows grow tall and the walls narrow on Nixon. This second act evolution moves like a montage into the third, but it stays focused and engaging, thanks to the richness of Robert Richardson’s cinematography, and to the rousing score from John Williams, a symphony of hope buried beneath inescapable sadness.
On all sides of Anthony Hopkins are marvelous supporting performances, but that almost goes without saying when it comes to Oliver Stone and his brand of epic. James Woods is great as Nixon sycophant and political strategist, Bob Haldeman. Paul Sorvino is saddled with the toughest role as Henry Kissinger, whose mumbling delivery has been parodied into infinity, but Sorvino steers through as best as anyone could. Ed Harris, E.G. Marshall, David Paymer, David Hyde Pierce, and J.T. Walsh fill in the margins, and Mary Steenburgen lingers over the entire picture as a spectral Hannah Nixon, Richard’s domineering and deeply religious mother. Bob Hoskins has a handful of scenes as J. Edgar Hoover, and he’s never not unsettling.
Joan Allen plays Pat Nixon as an enigma who was never on board with her husband’s political career, though she always managed to come around because she loved her husband. Their relationship is the b-plot of Nixon, a strange romance that evolves and devolves over the years. Stone’s film is as emotionally complex and unsettled as its subject, and Anthony Hopkins knows how to pull us in without veering into parody. Hopkins isn’t wearing a prosthetic nose or some elaborate makeup to look exactly like Nixon. Instead, he’s representing Nixon’s energy, always nervous and always moving, like a shark, and he nails the voice. There are a number of great moments for Hopkins scattered throughout, where Stone shines a light on Nixon’s jealousy of Kennedy, his rich historical knowledge of the office of the president, his anger at the press and his disdain for the youth in revolt, but the scene where he chats up Vietnam protestors outside of the Lincoln Memorial tips the scales. It’s a brilliant moment, and it informs the rest of the film in both directions. Set in tight and medium shots, with bright white lights washing out the edges of the frame and painting the entire monument in a mournful silver/gray, Stone and Richardson capture the surreal nature of this night. There are different variations on this tale, and it’s certainly been sensationalized over the years. Such is the case with the history of Richard Nixon, and history in general, which makes many of the 1995 criticisms of Nixon more irrelevant now than ever.
Consistent criticisms of Oliver Stone have always revolved around his “irresponsibility with the truth,” or something along those lines. JFK was derided by some for spilling all these conspiracy plots out into the screen while masquerading as a pseudo-biopic on Jim Garrison and his infamous trial. But JFK was always about the conspiracy theories, not about what really did or didn’t happen. It’s a film whose only fuel is conspiracy, which is why Nixon, while it plays fast-and-loose with documented history, has the advantage over JFK. The conspiratorial narratives pile on top of each other in JFK until the story underneath becomes impenetrable. It’s easy to lose sight of Kevin Costner by the end. In Nixon, however, Stone has the advantage of one central character who is practically in every scene, and who keeps the center from spinning out of control. Hopkins is never off camera, or so it seems, and the decision to allow Hopkins’ acting abilities convey character in lieu of makeup effects eliminates any and all opportunity for distraction or mockery.
As much as I love the melodrama of Platoon and the time-capsule style of Wall Street, as much as Talk Radio and JFK stir the senses, as captivating as Natural Born Killers is, I never revisit any of Oliver Stone’s films as much as I do Nixon. There is something cathartic about its lengthy runtime where everything, fact or fiction, is laid out on the table. At the time of its release, another knock on the film was the fact that an outspoken liberal with conspiratorial inclinations would certainly tell only one side of the story; however, much like he did to a less-successful degree with W. in 2008, Stone took one of his longstanding targets of criticism and muted his anger to allow room for sympathy. Nixon has a level of humanity in Stone’s film that the real man never had in the news clips I saw growing up or in the historical texts, a humanity which makes his flaws hit harder, and cut deeper. Had Nixon been played as a sweaty, smiling, out-of-control madman, the film would buckle under that weight.
Stone’s desire to put everything he can into a fully-formed biopic makes it forever re-watchable, and as the Williams score swells and subsides, I find myself pulled into the vortex of a complicated man in complicated times. There are certainly parallels to the modern political landscape, and mileage may vary depending on what you think of the president or the media, but there’s little value in applying a dramatic retelling of another era of American history through the lens of 2020. Everyone gets it, we don’t have to tie it all together. Don’t we do that enough already?