Stone forgoes tricks for tragedy in Nixon
At times, Oliver Stone’s Nixon seems as dark, convoluted chaotic, and long as that president’s administration. At other times, it’s as unstable, crafty and paranoid as it’s hero recondite mind. Those are some of the reasons why the film is Stone’s best to date, and one of the most ambitious, erratic, and distorted efforts to bring history to the screen since Eisenstein or Griffith. Some may hate this interpretation of both the period and the person, but it has insidiously brought them back to life, if not vindicated them. With Richard Nixon, Oliver Stone has at last found a subject whose megalomania, paranoia, and gift for manipulating the truth matches his own. No wonder he’s sympathetic.
Anthony Hopkins as Richard Nixon in Nixon
The film begins and ends, as does the history of America in the last half-century, with Watergate. All the details chronicled and parodied at length –which are now almost ions of American folklore—are in place: Nixon (Anthony Hopkins, who neither looks nor sounds much lik Nixon but whose bearish, cringing presence is exactly suitable) sloshing scotch in his darkened office as the fireplace and air conditioner run full blast; sinister Alexander Haig (Powers Boothe) skulking in with a tape for the president’s perusal; the obscenities and yelps of self pity as Nixon reprises the fatal conferences he foolishly and vaingloriously recorded. What is missing, though, is the acrimony and black humor that invariably accompanies these images. Perhaps because he showed his limitations in that department with Natural Born Killers, Stone in Nixon foregoes satire for tragedy.
Not that he’s avoiding humor altogether. From the opening scene, this Nixon evokes more the fearful comedy of Beckett’s Krapp than the unabashed, unexplained evil of Nixon’s namesake in Shakespeare’s Richard III (soon to be released in a wacky, postmodern adaptation with Ian McKellen, which could serve as a sequel of Stone’s film). As the voices spin from the reel and the camera closes in on the gears and sprockets of the tape recorder, Nixon is drawn back into the flashbacks within flashbacks of his past only to discover a weaving of words, egos, and delusion that disclose not a tragic flaw but a tragic void.
Stone, regrettably, tries his hand at psychoanalyzing. What he offers is nothing new (he might have taken a hint from Robert Coover’s endearingly benighted Nixon in the Public Burning, or the shriveled soul exposed in Robert Altman’s Secret Honor). Nixon had a Kennedy complex: everything he was and did failed by comparison with the leader of Camelot. Jack was rich; Dick was poor. Jack went to Harvard; Dick went to Whittier. Jack slept with countless women; Dick married Pat. Jack was loved; Dick was elected. As Nixon himself says to his predecessor’s portrait by the end of the film, “When they look at you, they see what they want to be. When they look at me, they see what they are.”
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