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Nixon Movie Review

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1995 – Oliver Stone –

The considerable obstacle to appreciating this film results from the choice to place in a tragic framework such relatively recent events. Shakespeare wrote tragedies about historical kings—Richard II, Richard III—who had ruled over a hundred years earlier, and the ancient Greeks based their tragedies on myth and legend. Oliver Stone's attempt to bring tragedy out of modern politics met with resistance and box-office failure since appreciating Stone's view required some objectivity about Richard Nixon, perhaps the most polarizing political figure of our age.

The great power of Stone's film comes from the human picture of Nixon (Anthony Hopkins) that he presents. Even the most passionate Nixon hater watching the film for a cinematic bashing session can come away from it with perhaps his first awareness of Nixon as a real person. For Stone to have put all the character's flaws to the service of humanizing one of the great dissemblers and hiders of our public life is both amazing and smart. The most powerful scenes in the film all derive their impact from the glimpses they afford behind the plastic Nixon smile and the robotic persona. He travels in the pre-dawn hours to the Lincoln Memorial to meet the student protesters of Vietnam, but his attempts to make small-talk about college sports miscarry ludicrously. One woman (Joanna Going) senses that the president is helplessly in the grip of the system or “the beast.” The power-hungry Nixon comes away stung by this intuition that he himself has hardly grasped over a lifetime in politics. Later, he is aghast at reading his own profanities when shown the verbal transcripts of his secret audio recordings in the Oval Office. He cannot reconcile the mental picture of himself as a Quaker and as the child of devout Hannah Nixon (Mary Steenburgen) with the torrent of filth that he reads. Pat (Joan Allen, in a striking performance) comes to him in the final days and articulates the tragic irony of his life—that he could put on tape (and be undone by) the feelings inside of him but could not confide them to any of his own family. The final insight, authenticated by journalist Tom Wicker, comes when he stands on the eve of his resignation before a painting of JFK: “When they look at you, they see what they want to be; when they look at me, they see what they are.”

As much could be said about Stone's impressive technique as about his point of view. The film's style has a kaleidoscopic feel to it with images flying by at different angles, from different time periods of the story, and in different film stocks, even including some use of film negatives. The abrupt, brief shift from positive to negative images (as in the second or two of Nixon sitting at his desk as an all-white mass against the dark surroundings of the office) suggests, in critic Owen Gleiberman's great phrase, an “X-ray of the soul.” The opening quotation from Matthew 12:26 (“What shall it profit a man if he shall gain the whole world and lose his own soul?”) also invites such an approach. Nixon succeeds at providing the X-ray of the soul that all tragedy strives for.

Cast: Anthony Hopkins (Richard Nixon), Joan Allen (Pat Nixon), James Woods (H.R. Haldeman), J.T. Walsh (John Ehrlichman), Paul Sorvino (Henry Kissinger), Powers Boothe (Alexander Haig), David Hyde Pierce (John Dean), E.G. Marshall (John Mitchell), Madeline Kahn (Martha Mitchell), David Paymer (Ron Ziegler), Saul Rubineck (Herb Kline), Kevin Dunn (Chuck Colson), Tony Plana (Manolo Sanchez), Bob Hoskins (J. Edgar Hoover), Brian Bedford (Clyde Tolson), Fyvush Finkel (Murray Chotiner), Tony Lo Bianco (Johnny Roselli), John Diehl (G. Gordon Liddy), Ed Harris (Howard Hunt), Larry Hagman (Jack Jones), Robert Beltran (Frank Sturgis), James Karen (Bill Rogers), Richard Fancy (Mel Laird), Annabeth Gish (Julie Nixon), Marley Shelton (Tricia Nixon), Tom Bower (Frank Nixon), Mary Steenburgen (Hannan Nixon), Sean Stone (Donald Nixon), Joshua Preston (Arthur Nixon), Corey Carrier (Richard Nixon, age 12), David Barry Gray (Richard Nixon, age 19), Tony Goldwyn (Harold Nixon), Dan Hedaya (Trini Cardoza), Sam Waterston (Richard Helms), George Plimpton (Fred Buzhardt), Edward Herrmann (Nelson Rockefeller), Joanna Going (young woman at Lincoln Memorial), Donna Dixon (Maureen Dean), Mary Rudolph (Rosemary Woods), Bob Marshall (Spiro Agnew) Screenwriter: Stephen J. Rivele, Christopher Wilkinson, Oliver Stone Cinematographer: Robert Richardson Composer: John Williams Producer: Clayton Townsend and Oliver Stone for Hollywood Pictures; released by Cinergi and Illusion Entertainment MPAA Rating: R Running Time: 192 minutes Format: VHS, LV Awards: Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards 1995: Supporting Actress (Joan Allen), National Society of Film Critics Awards 1995: Supporting Actress (Joan Allen), Academy Awards 1995: Nominations: Actor (Anthony Hopkins), Screenplay, Supporting Actress (Joan Allen), Original Dramatic/Comedy Score (John Williams); British Academy Awards 1995: Nominations: Supporting Actress (Joan Allen); Golden Globe Awards 1996: Nominations: Actor—Drama (Anthony Hopkins); Screen Actors Guild Awards 1995: Nominations: Actor (Anthony Hopkins), Actress (Joan Allen) Budget: $50M Box Office: $13M.

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