Saturday, August 15, 2009

Nixon (1995)

By Eric Jessen 8/14/09

Nixon is a captivating epic muddle of conspiracy theories and the “beast,” a huge biopic of Nixon and the victims of his presidential scandals, battered faces and tortured souls played by an extraordinary cast. Nixon is also a distinctly personal tragedy, a mix of Macbeth and Kane playing out in Oliver's universe, “Citizen Stone.”
Stone's is a complex, frightening movie world, a treacherous “beast” with wars fought in wild, angry jungles (remember Oliver Stone's Platoon), TV News and Animal Planet porn destroying innocent teenage minds (remember Natural Born Killers), a ferociously competitive financial market (remember Wall Street and Michael Douglas saying “greed is good”) and a corrupt political system of communists and assassinations (remember JFK and the magic bullet). “Citizen Stone” is Oliver's paranoid delusional nightmare. He tickles our fancy for borderline absurd conspiracy theories, dazzling, awesomely thrilling while also vindictive and menacing, deeply personal, begrudging, stubborn, and desperate to be controversial. It's uniquely Oliver. With Nixon he's found a perfect playmate, the ideal antihero, awkward loser. Oliver's Nixon played by Anthony Hopkins is a strange complicated mess of emotions and Freudian psycho-drama: his blessed mother, father's “woodshed,” and two brothers' deaths lurk over his shoulders. They share a “me against the world,” spit in the face of the east coast elite mentality, a bitterness and hatred for the establishment.
In Nixon Oliver Stone also invokes basic Shakespearian tragedy and Wellesian Kane. This Nixon has a tragic flaw and a “rosebud,” smoking gun, hidden secret. The film is set during the last few months of Nixon's presidency as he drinks, pops pain pills and completely unravels. Hunched over in the Lincoln room, Nixon listens to the infamous Watergate tapes and remembers his life.
We watch, through flashbacks, Nixon's rough childhood, his rocky political life of embarrassments and a building jealous hatred for JFK and the Kennedys. Oliver Stone paints Nixon as a man in constant struggle, a victim of the “beast,” the political environment, his childhood, the pressure to succeed, but also a victim of his own insecurity. He was ugly, poor, awkward, and desperate to be loved, drawing more and more inward as he was rejected, never letting himself be vulnerable. So he became a tireless worker, a bull of a fighter, battling his way to the top. But as the public rejected him he became more and more bitter which only fueled his crotchety, corrupt villain persona. He realizes his self fulfilling prophecy: “Others may hate you. But those who hate you don't win unless you hate them. And then you destroy yourself.” Nixon despised JFK because he saw in him everything he wanted to be: rich, attractive, personable and loved. He says in front of JFK's portrait in the White House, “When they look at you they see what they want to be. When they look at me they see what they are.”
Oliver Stone portrays Nixon as a complicated human being instead of a caricature. He also captures the mystery in Nixon. In the “Citizen Stone” world, Nixon is also a fascinating, Kane-esque enigma, always seeming to be holding back a deep dark “something.” He's a black hole of emotions but a treasure chest of juicy secrets. Maybe the 18 ½ minutes of missing tape hold the answers.
Nixon is as much about Oliver Stone as anything but he surely doesn't deserve all the credit. Though he doesn't look or sound like Nixon, Anthony Hopkins does a fantastic job of depicting Nixon's internal pain and suffering, his tension but also his enormous presence. Nixon also includes a marvelous supporting cast. Joan Allen as Pat Nixon, James Woods and J. T. Walsh as Halderman and Ehrlichman, Paul Sorvino as Henry Kissinger, Bob Hoskins as J. Edgar Hoover, and Powers Boothe as Alexander Haig are all spectacular. And Robert Richardson's photography is beautiful.
Nixon is now a fascinating, tragic enigma, a tortured soul in my mind and never again merely a crotchety, corrupt villain.

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