powered by AFI
Over the last generation, no American filmmaker has proved less daunted by addressing politically loaded subject matter than Oliver Stone. From the moment in the early '90s when Stone announced his intentions to mount a film biography of the only U.S. President to resign his office, anticipatory protest came from those who thought the project would only serve to demonize Richard M. Nixon. Other voices expressed their reservations that the film wouldn't go far enough in doing so. Ultimately, Stone's Nixon (1995) plays out like epic tragedy, and presents the 37th President as an ambitious but flawed man whose own insecurities not only fueled his rise to the highest seat of power, but lead him to tarnish his legacy.
In a 1995 interview with Salon.com, Stone was asked if he sought to "generate a certain buzz" with his choice of casting Anthony Hopkins, a Welshman with no particular physical resemblance to Nixon, in the title role. "I wouldn't characterize that as a motivation," he responded. "It works. He feels like Nixon. In The Remains of the Day [(1993)], I felt his sense of isolation, his sense of sadness. In Shadowlands [(1993)], there was an emotional fullness to his character. Hopkins is a complete actor. He's not like some of these by-the-numbers TV actors who have their bag of tricks." The actor passed on heavy make-up and obvious mimicry, but captured enough of Nixon's constrictive body language to convey his repression and loneliness.
Stepping off from the point in 1972 when the White House backed "plumbers" were caught burglarizing the Democratic National Headquarters at the Watergate Hotel, and concluding with the demise of the Nixon Administration two years later, Stone navigates the film's three hour running time in a non-linear fashion. The director's narrative interweaves the increasing desperation within the Nixon White House in its final days with the formative events in his life. From the strict and demanding upbringing at the hands of his Quaker mother (Mary Steenburgen) to the congressional career marked by the relentless red-baiting that paved his way to the Vice-Presidency to the embittering rivalry with John F. Kennedy, Stone made genuine effort to lend his subject dimension.
The resentment of JFK resonates through the course of the film, and culminates in a scene where Nixon sadly contemplates JFK's White House portrait and declaims "When they see you, they see want they want to be. When they see me, they see who they are." In an interview, Hopkins agreed that "it sums up his whole attitude about himself, Kennedy and the public who never loved him like he needed, but he could never had said such a thing. Not Nixon. If he had been that self-aware, he would not have been so miserable about it. Perception lightens our load."
Hopkins' efforts were complemented by those of Joan Allen, who had been working under film critics' radar for a decade before her performance as long-suffering First Lady Pat Nixon. Delivering a characterization that was surprisingly subtle yet emotionally complex, Allen garnered her first Oscar® nomination. Nixon would receive four Oscar® nominations altogether, with the balance going to Hopkins, John Williams' score, and the screenplay authored by Stone, Stephen J. Rivele and Christopher Wilkinson.
Another of the film's virtues is the large and talented roster of actors assembled to portray the major players in Watergate and the other key events of Nixon's career. The long list includes Powers Boothe (Alexander Haig), Paul Sorvino (Henry Kissinger), E.G. Marshall (John Mitchell), Bob Hoskins (J. Edgar Hoover), James Woods (H.R. Haldeman), J.T. Walsh (John Ehrlichman), Ed Harris (E. Howard Hunt), David Hyde Pierce (John Dean), Edward Herrmann (Nelson Rockefeller) and David Paymer (Ron Ziegler).
Critics of the film mostly leveled their complaints at Stone's scenario where dramatic license trumped historical accuracy, but the director, in a 1997 interview, expressed his own surprise at his film's sympathetic leanings towards its subject. "[A]t the end of the day it was really clear that a lot of the problems of Richard Nixon were really personal," he stated. "He distorted himself, in a sense. Instead of taking grace from power and doing something better with his power, he distorted into a darker side. That's what was interesting about the man."
Producer: Oliver Stone, Clayton Townsend, Andrew G. Vajna, Dan Halsted, Eric Hamburg, Richard Rutowski
Director: Oliver Stone
Screenplay: Stephen J. Rivele, Christopher Wilkinson, Oliver Stone
Cinematography: Robert Richardson
Film Editing: Brian Berdan, Hank Corwin
Art Direction: Richard F. Mays, Donald Woodruff, Margery Zweizig
Music: John Williams
Cast: Anthony Hopkins (Richard Nixon), Joan Allen (Pat Nixon), Powers Boothe (Alexander Haig), Ed Harris (E. Howard Hunt), Bob Hoskins (J. Edgar Hoover), E.G. Marshall (John Mitchell).
BW& C-192m. Letterboxed.
by Jay S. Steinberg