Directed by: Oliver Stone
Premise: A biopic of President Richard Nixon (Anthony Hopkins). The story cuts back and forth between his presidency and his youth and early political career.
What Works: Nixon is an ambitious film that manages to cover the major political events of Nixon’s life while also drawing an intimate portrait of the man. The structure of the film is very complex and includes lots of information, including the ins and outs of the Watergate scandal, Nixon’s relationship with the Kennedy family, and the administration’s management of the Vietnam War, but the film is assembled in such a way that it makes sense of all this information and connects it with Nixon’s early years growing up on a farm in a Quaker family. The cinematography and editing of Nixon are superb. The film uses lots of interesting angles within scenes and utilizes all kinds of different film formats. On top of that, Nixon uses lots of news footage and subjective or impressionistic backgrounds. This is similar to some of Stone’s techniques in Natural Born Killers, but in Nixon there is a little more restraint and a greater sense of purpose. The dissolves, time laps photography, montages, and composite shots work with the narrative structure of the film instead of being adjunct to it and help convey Nixon’s growing paranoia and the cultural context of the events. Unlike some of Oliver Stone’s other work, he’s less hysterical than he was in JFK or Platoon and takes care to get the history right while balancing that with storytelling principles. The result is a film that holds its subject accountable for his actions but also manages to create a very sympathetic portrait of Nixon by going beneath the surface and exploring the political considerations of the time and Nixon’s personal demons. The film has some great casting, starting with Anthony Hopkins as Richard Nixon. It’s one of Hopkins’ best performances; the film makers use make up to give Hopkins a look that approximates the former president and Hopkins captures the mannerisms and voice. It’s a performance that Hopkins hasn’t equaled since. The rest of the cast is great as well, notably Joan Allen as Pat Nixon, Bob Hoskins as J. Edgar Hoover, Paul Sorvino as Henry Kissinger, J.T. Walsh as John Ehrlichman, and James Woods as H.R. Haldeman. Everybody here is at the top of their game and the script manages to give each character, but especially Allen as Pat Nixon, the chance to carry the burden of Richard Nixon’s lies and paranoia.
What Doesn’t: The cut of Nixon available on DVD has been extended by about twenty minutes to include additional scenes. While the additional footage makes the story more coherent, the picture quality of the additional footage is lacking compared to the rest of the film. John Williams provides the score for Nixon and although it is a good score, it is a little overbearing in places.
DVD extras: The Election Year Edition of Nixon includes a documentary, deleted scenes, a Charlie Rose interview with Oliver Stone, commentary tracks, and a trailer.
Bottom Line: Nixon may be Oliver Stone’s best film, as it utilizes all of his best tendencies and minimizes his negative ones. The picture is the pinnacle of Stone’s filmmaking skills, drawing on the techniques he used in JFK and Natural Born Killers but with better research and an improved sense of direction. This is also one of the great film adaptations of history, especially recent history, and it is a model for those looking to reconcile storytelling with historical accuracy.
Episode: #203 (September 7, 2008)