Nixon (1995), dir. Oliver Stone
Region 2 DVD
"He had greatness within his grasp." So reads the tagline for Oliver Stone’s 1995 bio-pic, Nixon.
In part, a difficult and disturbing film Nixon is not exactly the film one might expect Oliver Stone to make about the life of Richard Milhous Nixon, the 37th President of the United States. Tempering his occasionally reductive liberal leanings Stone delivers a relatively objective, even handed portrayal of a highly ambiguous, multi-faceted character. A sympathetic depiction of a very flawed man, someone it is easy to relate to, whom may have even had greatness in him.
Like all these kinds of films Nixon raises more questions than it answers, as it should. This is a fictionalised account of one man’s life condensed into a three-hour movie, a dramatic re-enactment. One of the film’s biggest problems, a difficulty faced by all films about the private lives of public figures is the natural questioning, "is this part real?" "What about that?" "Did that actually happened?" This is particularly pertinent when the subject is a man as derisive and controversial as Richard Nixon. But watching the film, all of that fades very quickly. As one is drawn further and further into the story it becomes possible to enjoy the film more for what it is, a very compelling and gripping piece of entertainment with a great story and genuine characters.
Nixon is centred around a remarkable performance from Sir Anthony Hopkins who is entirely invisible inside the role. Stone never shies away from the darker side of his character but there are also large portions of the film given over to humanising Nixon, downplaying the idea that he was simply ‘a crook’. Stone’s vision paints him as a brilliantly tragic figure: a largely noble man, in politics for the right reasons, fuelled by a genuine desire to change things for the better from within the system. A man who like any other made mistakes, only he was doing the job of President of the United States when he made them.
Hopkin’s Nixon sees everyone as his enemy, only there to be fought against, united by their shared hatred of him. He talks about himself in the third person: "It was always about Nixon…" "No, Nixon can’t do that…" Forever in the shadow of JFK, he confides in his painting on the White House wall, "When people look at you they see what they want to be. When they look at me they see what they are." His strict, poor upbringing is constant in flashbacks, ghosts, repressed memories and references back, a sea of turmoil he spent his life trying to get away from. Incapable of enjoying his achievements he is a deeply melancholic figure, one to be pitied, not hated.
The film also raises questions about his potentially self-destructive tendencies. Why did he have all those recordings made in the Oval Office? Why didn’t he burn the tapes when he had the chance? His wife suggests that he made the tapes because he wanted to be caught, because he likes to feel put upon, to have everyone against him. True or not, it’s an interesting point.
I had very few preconceptions about Richard Nixon before watching this film, which meant I was able to enjoy the film as a film, without prejudice. In my desire to find out more, having seen the film, I ventured onto the Internet where I found an obituary written by Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson. I think it would be fair to say that Thompson hated Nixon, and that might even be a bit mild. His article is titled, "Notes on the passing of an American monster…"
Then I read some reviews of Nixon the film. The reviewers seemed to believe that Stone was in agreement with Thompson as concerns his appraisal of the man, claiming his despicable nature was one of the film’s central conceits. I find that shocking and disheartening if it’s true. That is exactly the kind of judgmental, overtly subjective nonsense I thought the film was clever to avoid. Maybe I missed it because of my own prejudices, or a political naivety. For me, the film was not about that at all, it was a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions about a man destined for greatness who’s own nature was his undoing. The life and times of Richard Nixon are used as the vehicle for telling that particular story, which adds a greater depth and poignancy. Much like Peter Shaffer’s play, Amedeus, which may be historically inaccurate but that from a dramatic standpoint makes perfect sense.
It might be naïve, or even ignorant but I liked the film I saw a whole lot better than the one so many other reviewers seemed to.