By John H. Foote
21. NIXON (1995)
When it was announced Oliver Stone would direct a film biography of former President Richard Nixon, who resigned in disgrace in 1974 amidst the Watergate affair, audiences and critics, hell most of Hollywood, held their breath, expecting a powerful attack and expose on the man rather than a fair and very honest biography. Though Stone chose to explore Nixon flaws of character and all, he in fact was incredibly fair and presented an honest portrait of a complicated man.
After bringing back to American film the startling realism of Vietnam with Platoon (1986) and Born on the Fourth of July (1989), both which brought him Academy Awards for Best Director, Stone fixated on the United States Presidency, beginning with the controversial assassination of JFK (1991), a masterpiece higher on this list. It was after his intense masterwork Natural Born Killers (1994) he decided to explore the troubled life of Richard Nixon.
Nixon (1995), simply titled, was anything but a simplistic film.
It must be remembered that though Nixon resigned in 1974, every single president to follow, including his opponents, sought his advice on matters of foreign policy. Presidents Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush, and Clinton counted on Nixon for his assistance during their Presidencies, and all eulogized him at his funeral. So, despite the disgrace surrounding Nixon in 1974 at the time he resigned, he had proven himself time and time again to be a patriotic and great statesman. Though his Presidency was troubled, he was a great American and a great President, which history has borne out. Even though he resigned in disgrace, he was always considered a great statesman and brilliant politician, he might have been the smartest of the 20th century.
Several actors were considered for the plum role of Nixon, including Tom Hanks and Jack Nicholson, as well as little known but gifted actor Lane Smith, acclaimed as Nixon for his stunning, uncanny performance in the TV film The Final Days (1988). In the end it was Oscar winner Anthony Hopkins who got the part, and who proceeded to study hundreds of hours of footage of the late President to capture his speech patterns and master that stooped walk Nixon moved with. Hopkins said finding the plastic smile that never touched his eyes was the hardest aspect of Nixon to create. One review mentioned they felt Hopkins had captured Nixon’s haunted, wounded soul just like an X ray, which is the best description I have heard for the performance.
From the opening Anthony Hopkins is gone, this is Richard Nixon, cursing like a sailor, awkward, struggling with being worthy of the office of the President. Rather than attempt a heavy makeup job to transform himself into Nixon, Hopkins instead chose to find the President’s damaged soul, which he captures beautifully. Like a tragic Shakespearean character, Nixon was at war with himself, never believing deep within he was worthy of the office of the President. He believed he climbed over the bodies of his brother, and the two slain Kennedys to achieve the Presidency, never truly worthy of it, or in fact his mother’s love. She is a pinched-off woman, not loving at all but rather cold, as portrayed by a severe Mary Steenburgen who speaks in the “thees” and “thous” of the religion she was fanatically addicted too.
The film explores many of the more famous events of the Nixon presidency, but best of all is the sequence where he manages to get out of the White House to the Lincoln memorial where he encounters a group of hippies protesting the war. The kids cannot believe it when they see him and are delighted when he speaks with him, but then they realize despite his desire to end the war, he cannot; it has gone too far. The defeated look on his face tells us and the kids they are right on the money. Yet despite the youth disliking Nixon, Stone plays the scenes for the truth, the kids encounter the most powerful man on the planet in the wee hours of the morning without a Secret Service detail, absolutely alone and vulnerable, and are at first in awe of who he is. When they speak to him it is as though they are discussing the war with their own father, and Nixon responds in fatherly tones.
The film moves in a broken narrative back and forth through his life, flashing back to Whittier in California where his father operated a grocery store. Back and forth we move through history, watching Nixon remember from the White House his years growing up, dealing with the shocking death of his beloved brother, constantly living trying to impress his mother, sternly portrayed by Mary Steenburgen with a constant pinched look on her face. We watch him move through politics, losing to Kennedy in 1960 after serving as Eisenhower’s Vice President for eight years, the famous “Checkers” speech, sweating his way through live TV interviews, said to be a big part of why he lost to the dashing Kennedy, and though swearing to his wife he was out when approached to run for the 1968 election, he finds himself pulled back in. To do so, of course, like all Presidents he has to make some shady deals with big business monsters, ghosts that could haunt him, though no ghost is so terrifying to him as that of the Kennedys, who he feels he climbed over to get here. More than once he refers to the dead Kennedys in his ascension to the Oval Office, even after winning a second term by the greatest landslide in Presidential history. By then Watergate is unraveling like the cancer it became to Nixon, and his aides promise him it will go away, but those are promises they cannot make. The Washington Post team of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein are relentless in their pursuit of tying the White House to the break in, and once tapes are found to exist, Nixon knows it is a matter of time.
Now the White House becomes a prison to him, a trap from which there is but one escape, resignation. In the White House with Henry Kissinger one fateful night he begins to weep and suddenly falls to his knees asking Kissinger to pray with him, hoping history will remember him well. The next day, at noon, he resigned the Presidency, turning it over to his own Vice President Gerald Ford, who would later pardon Nixon for his crimes. Nixon would maintain, “It is not a crime if the President does it” until his interviews with David Frost, where he admitted he betrayed his office and the American people. Those interviews, perhaps more than any moment in his life, proved him human and earned him compassion. Suddenly his great accomplishments were recalled.
Among his greatest achievements were the opening of the relations with two communist countries, China and Russia, something never done before, including an American President visiting behind the Iron Curtain to Russia. He ended the conflict in Vietnam as he promised he would and had many other great achievements to his name. Oh, that Watergate had never happened, or, Nixon had told the truth.
There is no more telling moment in the film than when he stands in front of the portrait of John F. Kennedy and says to it aloud, “When they look at you, they see what they want to be, when they look at me, they see who they are.”
The performance of Anthony Hopkins was superb on every level, choosing not to imitate Nixon but rather catch his great wounded soul in his performance. Looking physically not like Nixon at all, it was astonishing to see how quick he convinced he was the late President. That stooped walk, watchful eyes, never truly trusting anyone, the speech pattern and best of all that plastic smile that never once touched his eyes. As Nixon was known to do, his language is often very vulgar even though he knew tapes were running and capturing him cursing on tape constantly. In many ways he was a complete contradiction, but a gifted, politically brilliant man. What a shame he never had the self-esteem needed to lead the nation, had he been blessed with that, he might have been the greatest President in U.S. history.
Every United States President to follow him into the White House sought his advice on matters of foreign affairs and policy, every single one of them. Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush, and Clinton who all attended his funeral and eulogized him at the Nixon Library in California.
Joan Allen was equally brilliant as the much put-upon Pat Nixon, who never received the attention a wife might want, physical attention, while being an upright First Lady. Paul Sorvino is outstanding as Henry Kissinger though was criticized in some circles for more of an imitation that a deep performance. The rest of the huge sprawling cast do excellent work, but the film rests entirely on the shoulders of Hopkins and director Oliver Stone. As he did with both JFK (1991) and Natural Born Killers (1994), Stone uses different film stocks and video for the picture, and often goes to black and white. The cinematography was breathtaking throughout the film, as was the production design of the film.
Though a fair, honest biography, the Nixon family did not approve of the film, a sad state because Stone went to great pains to be fair, to give the story an almost Shakespearean tragic feel to it. Entertainment Weekly named it the Best Picture of the Year and Nixon made many 10 best lists. It seemed poised to end up dominating the race for the Academy Awards but received just four nominations – Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress (Allen) among them. In the years since, Hopkins’ performance is often hailed as the finest of his career, a profoundly brilliant portrait of a man who was misunderstood but sadly, never understood himself, or his own greatness.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.