With Nixon, Oliver Stone further excavates what he fervently holds as the parallel life of his own, the tumultuous time of the 1960s in particular, rife with a tangled web of American political conspiracy, earlier most pointedly drawn in his JFK, while creating an equally sprawling and intimate film with a darkly intoxicating narrative as densely brooding and forlorn as the finest Grecian, Shakespearean and Marlovian tragedies enhanced by evocative homages to that amaranthine non-chronological biopic template, Citizen Kane. At that narrative's plaintive heart is one man, Richard M. Nixon (Anthony Hopkins), the thirty-seventh President of the United States. Nixon was a man of nearly limitless contradictions, and Stone courageously mounted a film worthily similar to its subject in its intentionally self-contradictory configuration, a work so rambunctiously vital, with countless techniques of nakedly, aggressively and floridly adorned embellishments, from cinematographer Robert Richardson's stirring confluence of the baroque and high-intensity, to the “psycho-history” of peering into not merely the corridors of power but the recesses of one man's tormented mind and soul, and the cyclonic aftermath of not merely his own orbit's conclusive reckoning but the very beastly nature of the office in which he served, to the behemothic ensemble cast so coruscating when members thereof are called upon to perform that serves in large measure as the broad canvas on which the completion of the central portrait is wrought.
Nixon commences like an expressionistic horror picture or possibly film noir. A thunderstorm has engulfed Washington, D.C., and appears to be centrally located above the White House. Stone's camera watches with intemperance, culminating in the first of many homages to the Orson Welles film debut masterpiece: the camera gradually pushes through the imposing black-barred White House gate. Cinema's greatest showmen understood film was in many ways the ultimate achievement in voyeurism. Working off of a screenplay written by Stone himself, and Stephen J. Rivele and Christopher Wilkinson, the film's skeletal structure seems to bring the onlooker to the end of the tale, as King Lear is just discovering the truth of his progeny. Nixon sits stolidly in the corner of the Lincoln Room of the presidential palace, the ice cubes of his drink clinking as he raptly listens to his precious tapes, deciphering just how his presidency became shipwrecked. With a large fire roaring and the air conditioner on, Nixon is a man unsure of what he wants, and what he needs, only nebulously aware that the fate he finds confronted with is just as momentously catholic in its simple morality—impropriety is to be dealt with punitively (informed by his strict Quaker mother played by Mary Steenburgen in Whitter, California-based black-and-white flashback scenes that likewise crib from Citizen Kane, serving partly as a device of empathetic relation to the overburdened and often bitterly parented young Richard)—as it is apparently inescapable.
Hopkins does not so much transform himself into Nixon, like Philip Seymour Hoffman in Capote, but summon the man through sheer force of will. Hopkins's occasionally apoplectic volatility is what one will likely catch at first, but more probing looks will illuminate a thoroughly coagulated creation, doubtless stemming from the man. Hopkins uncannily captures Nixon's usual stance, his arms folded against his own back, his torso leaning just slightly downward, bringing his countenance into unclear focus, almost resembling a contemplative falcon, and modulates his voice pattern and tone to an approximation that carries the performer from one scene to another. Disheveled and sweaty, with the famed five o'clock shadow making its appearance at around noontime, Nixon often looks like a man who should be told to slow down. A tenacious bull, he cannot, and he refuses to allow any obstacle deny him the love he desires so. Stone posits that Nixon's harsh upbringing, set in a poverty-stricken Quaker family, during which the boy lost two of his brothers to disease, and lacking in the love he tenderly wishes to have in his life, made him chronically embittered, believing himself to be unworthy of such love if his (repeatedly termed) “saint of a mother,” Hannah Nixon, was so unbending in her disciplinary imposition and his nodular, emotionally distant father was so mulishly disinterested in ever conveying his love for his son beyond the necessities of working to put food on the table. Stone is known for many things but subtlety has never been one of them. Here he arguably overdoes his point, drawing Nixon's lifelong trajectory (to his resignation from office) in the unattainably shrouded context of his childhood pushing him to achieving greatness, with flashbacks to Whittier that many may consider tangential, and a shot of a ghostlike Hannah Nixon sitting down on a chair of the Lincoln Room, that would seem irrationally screwy in most films nominally about the same tale. Yet Stone's picture becomes larger than life in a way that proves Nixon's puissantly contested points about “bold moves” making the difference in history when electing to bomb Cambodia. Stone's cinema is about bold moves, and oftentimes they become overripe and undignified, resulting with himself supplying commodious ammunition to his detractors. With Nixon, however, the package is so seamlessly tied together, its myriad compendious components work almost flawlessly to forge an afflatus that finds transcendence in Hopkins's performance.
The supporting cast is audaciously perfect, endowing Stone's massively ambitious endeavor with a vivid tableau of grippingly convincing performances. In the film's role of an intermittently exhausted conscience, Joan Allen is nothing less than wonderful as Nixon's loving wife, Pat, whose subtle strength and durability sustain her husband, especially in moments of despair. James Woods is carnivorous as H.R. Haldeman, giving mere glances toward White House subordinates that perennially reinforce the unremitting reality that he has the president's ear, and is available to the president whenever Nixon needs a forthright sounding board and adviser. J.T. Walsh plays John Ehrlichman as a dutiful soldier plagued by growing doubt, which Stone considers one of the picture's more askew portrayals, meant in part to give the more hawkish Haldeman some contrast. Powers Boothe has the small but dramatically important role of Alexander Haig, who must at times help bring his president back into the reality of his situation. Bob Hoskins as the aging J. Edgar Hoover is menacing in a borderline mythomaniacal way that, like several of the more outlandish turns, vies to find a deeper, more diamantine truth beneath the exterior amplifications. E. Howard Hunt is played by Ed Harris, who makes his role more furtive and corpuscular than anyone else's, a kind of self-rationalizing beacon of quiet, blackmailing philosophizing. Paul Sorvino is eerily similar in appearance and vocal qualities to Henry Kissinger, playing all sides of the White House game, fastidiously applying Nixon as a tool himself for the foreign policy accomplishments he so doggedly pursues. E.G. Marshall's turn as John Mitchell, the man Nixon could have easily cut bait on and allowed to drown for the sake of the administration, is all-knowing; under his bulldog-like face, rests a mind plagued by uneasiness and a prevalent cynicism, brought about partly by his tempestuous wife Martha's unmaintainable outbursts of disregard for “Tricky Dick Nixon,” which continually embarrass. (Martha is played by Madeline Kahn.) David Hyde Pierce is ambiguously epicene, his words of warning (“...there is a cancer on the White House...”) serving to only incriminate himself in the eyes of Nixon. Ron Ziegler is embodied by David Paymer. John Diehl is a dead ringer for G. Gordon Liddy.
Excised from the theatrical cut is Sam Waterston as a demonic incarnation of Richard Helms, Director of the CIA. The film itself is introduced with a Biblical verse, Matthew 16:26, “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, but loses his soul?” When Nixon takes the trip to Langley to meet Helms, Stone flashes with titles what is inscribed on the marble wall of the Central Intelligence Agency, from John 8:32: “And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” (Revealingly, the entire quote that begins with John 8:31 has been halved; in its entirety, the Scripture reads, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.”) Stone portrays Nixon's descent into the bowels of the CIA headquarters as a kind of journey into the pit of hell, where the festering devilish underworld master holds court and behaves with rogue capabilities. The sequence is bravura, flashing assassination attempts, successful and not, for which the Agency has been responsible (Castro, Diem, Trujillo) as well as covert operations in countries such as Honduras, while Stone heuristically underscores the operatic scene with some of John Williams' most arrestingly moody and ominous music. Nixon is portrayed as a man who actively fears flowers, for he fears death (a condition brought about by the untimely deaths of two of his brothers, pointed to with sympathetic verite and expressionism by Stone all at once), but Helms seems to keep a garden of flowers adjacent to his office so as to be reminded of “mortality,” as he calls it, of himself and everyone else, continually. Nixon, who sought to eliminate military bases in Europe (which he did), and reduce the defense budget significantly, is also interested in keeping the CIA on a leash, knowing what it is capable of, as he himself played an instrumental part in a covert operation called “Track Two,” the contingency op that was designed to go into effect if and when the Bay of Pigs mission failed in Cuba. In one of the film's most nightmarish and confrontational scenes, Nixon and Helms are two men wrestling over power, one determined to keep the other out of the loop as much as possible (so much so he has Nixon's man inside to keep tabs on the CIA Director fetch coffee and little else). Nixon wants the Agency to look into communist infiltration of the antiwar protesters in the streets, convinced that subvert forces are at work, equating the dilemma with Alger Hiss, whose scalp, he periodically reminds people, he extracted during the House of Un-American Activities era. Nixon also wants crucial files that have his name signed on them to be brought to his office, and all copies destroyed. Helms unctuously agrees to these minor concessions so as to retain his untrammeled clout, rhetorically twisting the president's arm to keep his self-sustaining autonomy, only needing the rest of the government to function so as to keep “the Beast,” as it will eventually be called, alive, making demands to the president in circuitous statements such as, when told by Nixon that the CIA will maintain “current levels of funding,” “current levels of funding may not be sufficient.” More than anyone else, Helms is portrayed as wretchedly venal wraith, bottomlessly malevolent, his eyes epiphanously revealed to be entirely black as he smells his flowers. Helms quotes Yeats' The Second Coming, taunting the president with the concept that the country they are charged with protecting is at a juncture not unlike the one Yeats so beautifully, movingly describes. Waterston's performance, the music, the overlapping dissolves of flowers blossoming connoting the exponential mushrooming of the organic phenomenon of which Helms speaks concerning “Track 2” (“...it was more of an organic phenomenon... it grew, it changed shape... it developed appetites...”), representing the timbre of the Agency, and of “the Beast” to be alluded to later—they could all be seen as parts of an excessively orchestral panoply of images, sounds, tempo, narrative and hyper-drama, but the velocious intensity and expressionism enhances the intellectualizing at the dark heart of Stone's snarling opus.
Between the disjunctive cuts, abstractly drawn, flirtatiously tawdry metaphors—Nixon vocally considers dropping a nuclear bomb on the North Vietnamese at a dinner with the higher echelon of his advisers and confidantes, including Kissinger, Mitchell, Ehrlichman and Haldeman, only to find his steak profusely bleeding all over his plate—there lies the heartache and despondency beneath Nixon and Nixon's encroaching, lumbering pugnacity. As in Marlowe's Edward II, the ruler finds himself locked away, devastated by the ignoble encirclement of which he finds himself at the center. Determined to never become a quitter, the boorish sentiment finds itself, in its own insular context, markedly compared to the stubbornness and resolve of a great leader. Stone recurrently casts Nixon in the proximity of a portrait of Abraham Lincoln, beginning with the thirty-seventh president's first scene in the Lincoln Room. Nixon confides to Haig at the seven-minute mark, noting “the violence... the burning [of] draft cards... the war...” as Stone keeps his lens transfixed on the portrait of the sixteenth president, drawing one of the film's many grandiloquently doughty reasoning. Furiously speaking of himself in the third person—“Nixon has never been good at this kind of thing,” he says, fumbling with a disagreeable small item he must manipulate—he likens himself to the beleaguered Lincoln, surrounded by enemies, plagued by subversive, traitorous “elites,” as he refers to them, believing them to resent and revile him because he did not attend the right school and have nearly “everything handed to him” from his father like John F. Kennedy. Personally wounded by Kennedy's biting criticisms of him, condensed into the particularly stinging rebuke that Nixon “lack[s] class,” the narrowly lost race of 1960 enrages Nixon, whose run for the gubernatorial position of California concluded in another loss that, according to the film, compelled Pat to threaten divorce, as her husband had only been known to their daughters from television for years. In a moment of crystalline clarity, Nixon must bend to his wife's ultimatum, declaring that he will never run for office again so long as she promises to say nothing more about divorce. After declaring to the members of the media for whom Nixon blames his defeats—“I just wish you would print what I say once in a while”—that they will not longer “...have Nixon to kick around anymore,” a Citizen Kane-like newsreel plays, feeding the audience greater background information, and likening the presently failed presidential and gubernatorial candidate to Lincoln as in his younger years, another “small-town lawyer.” (Another Citizen Kane homage comes later, with Nixon and his wife sitting at a long table, separated by many feet, the mutual temperament and attitude chilly and detached.) Nixon will later compare himself to Lincoln, uniting the country again in a time of tumult and upheaval, lawlessness and suffocating hatred, when confronted by a black Democrat “plant” at a television show. During one of Nixon's more probing self-examinations in the White House, he almost chastises himself for making it to the White House by riding the dead bodies of John and Robert Kennedy, but in his mind the number of corpses is “four.” Haldeman, the only man present with him, questions, “Four?” Nixon is including his own two brothers. Nixon walks to Lincoln's portrait and asks, “Where would we be without death? How many bodies for you... Abe? Hundreds of thousands...” Stone flashes back to older brother Harold Nixon (Tony Goldwyn) who compulsively vomits into a bowl as he slowly, painfully dies of tuberculosis. Stone's marriage of black-and-white dark blood spewing against the white bowl to a molecular breakdown of human tissue wizened into shriveled, wrinkly raisins, which Stone transforms into the famed footage of the missile sites in Cuba that commenced the Cuban Missile Crisis, for which Nixon blamed his gubernatorial defeat, as Kennedy's ratings had increased dramatically in the wake of the crisis, and the thirty-fifth president had skillfully aided Democrat Pat Brown. The spinning, kaleidoscopic melange of the personal and the political—latently wrought with imagery of Nixon being taken to the hospital in a daze, his tireless mind racing to sights of Castro waving to crowds, his brother spewing blood into the bowl, his slow, romantic courtship of Pat, an image of Eisenhower's portrait, being mercilessly tackled and battered as a college football player in Whittier—creates a convergence of the pneumatic and the particular.
Stone's empathetic treatment gifts his tragedy with a profundity that leaves the the viewer haunted. The cumulative impact is finally greater than any one part, partly because the filmic scheme of Stone's is to enchantingly, magnetically draw the heterogeneous particles into a pasteurized, homogeneous cream with Hopkins's Nixon standing athwart the bombarding onslaught of the vicissitudes of fate. Stone creates an emblematic treatise of a man torn between the theatricality of politics, both internally and outwardly manifested, in the awkward manner in which he debated Kennedy in 1960 on television, sweaty and unkempt (one of his men prays that the election will not be decided like "a beauty contest," a relevant point to the election of 2008 and others) the way he tells someone in 1963, “I miss the public, going into the crowd, the acting of it... I've got to get back in the arena!” or how he has to maintain the virile, scary strength Kissinger notes as important in convincing the Vietnamese, Chinese and Russians that he is a man with whom they must reckon. At the dinner during which Nixon orders his bloody steak taken back, he berates the notion that he can show any weakness to the antiwar movement by issuing a statement of condolences to the students killed at Kent State, while willingly engaging the communist Mao Tse-tung as he and his advisers consider the Vietnam War lost. Nixon had called the antiwar protesters from colleges, the people storming the streets and making themselves a persistent nuisance “bums,” disadvantageously so, twenty-four hours before the infamous campus shooting. In private, however, with only Mitchell on the presidential yacht, Nixon confides that the kids gunned down at Kent State were “just kids...” who were merely “throwing rocks, John. Just rocks.” Nixon contemplates the vagaries of diverse young people, picked on because they are “Jewish, or Irish... or ugly,” he says, with a self-reflexive vulnerability. Eventually he will go to the Lincoln Memorial at approximately four in the morning, whimsically meeting a group of antiwar protesters, “kids,” as he calls them. As the antiwar protesters challenge Nixon on the merits of the war, describing it as a civil war between Vietnamese, Nixon asserts that the man for whom the memorial stands confronted similar issues—war, civil strife, hatred between the races. Nixon speaks of his family background, the Quaker religion for whom had been mightily important, decisive in the family's decision to join the Republican Party because Lincoln freed the slaves. A nineteen-year-old girl penetrates the issue at hand with stunning sagacity, as Nixon relates, clumsily, confusingly, that he himself cannot stop the war in Vietnam despite wishing to, as she listens to Nixon say that he hopes to “control” and “tame” the system that perpetuates the war. “You sound like you're talking about a wild animal,” the girl notes. The moment allows Nixon to experience an epiphany. “Maybe I am,” he says. As Nixon is taken away from the crowd of protesters by his swarming security forces and Haldeman, the president tells his closest adviser while being packed into his car, “A nineteen-year-old college kid figured something out it's taken me thirty years to understand,” he remarks with aroused fascination. “She called it a Beast. A Beast...”
Behind the “Checkers speech” in which Nixon humanized himself in an effort to exonerate himself of any corruption and wrongdoing in the public eye in 1952 so Eisenhower would keep him on the ticket as vice-president, behind the Watergate scandal of a “third-rate burglary,” as Nixon and several associates refer to it in scoffing terminology, was a man. That man was a highly complicated, intelligent and enigmatically thralling individual. Too many banal dramatists would have given their Nixon fangs, but Stone's humanistic robustness and unbridled motional careening has a peculiarly, osmotically endearing effect, making this imposing, packed 210-minute political thriller, personal odyssey, shockingly efficacious, remarkably stitched collage of sights, sounds and meditative cogitation a tremendously exhilarating piece of cinema, a keenly formed piece of cultural commentary and the definitively paramount accomplishment of its unblenching creator.