Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Nixon (1995)

Director: Oliver Stone                                      Writers: Stephen J. Rivele & Christopher Wilkinson
Film Score: John Williams                               Cinematography: Robert Richardson
Starring: Anthony Hopkins, Joan Allen, James Woods and J.T. Walsh

Oliver Stone’s unique vision--some would say propaganda--really shines through in this political horror film. The opening credits end with a shot of the White House, lightning striking overhead, and Powers Boothe as Alexander Haig outside Nixon’s office door, flames in the foreground and John Williams’ Mephistophelean score in the background. Then Haig enters the room, lit only by the fireplace, with Nixon hulking about like a scene from the nineteenth century. And when Haig turns on the light it causes Nixon to recoil from it like Frankenstein’s monster before an open flame. And there is a startling association of Nixon with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Both feature men who believed they were above the law, that they knew what was best for the world, and that it didn’t matter what had to be done in order to achieve their goals. The hubris of both protagonists is what eventually leads to their downfall and disgrace. Stone’s film, long enough in its theatrical release at over two and a half hours, is powerfully augmented with another half hour of footage in the director’s cut and is the only way to really experience it fully.

The film begins with Powers Boothe delivering tapes to the President shortly before Nixon’s decision to erase part of them prior to turning them over during the investigation. The conceit gives the audience the opportunity to experience, along with Anthony Hopkins as Nixon, the major events in a life that would forge the character of the only man to resign the office of the President of the United States. In an exhibition of real dramatic flair, Stone uses black and white scenes, and sometimes even cuts, to great effect. One of those areas is during the flashbacks to Nixon’s past, yet another association with old horror films, and while a trip to the woodshed with his Quaker father is not quite a horror story, the death of two of his brothers is. The bulk of the modern story only begins with his run for the presidency in 1960 and his defeat by John F. Kennedy. There is a brief section outlining his failed run for the governorship of California two years later, and the only look at his vice-presidential years are in the faux newsreels that are the epitaph on his political career when he quits politics. Though he eventually wins the presidency, it is not without a cost, to both him, everyone around him, and the country as a whole, as his actions plunged the United States into chaos.

One of the chilling threads that runs through the film is Nixon’s association with the Kennedy assassination. On November 22, 1963 Nixon was actually in Dallas, and he makes his first deal with the devil in the form of Larry Hagman, a wealthy businessman who wants him to continue the war in Vietnam and implies that he and his friends are going to have John F. Kennedy killed in order to get Nixon into the White House. But that’s only the beginning. A second devil in the form of Bob Hoskins as J. Edgar Hoover implies four years later that he’ll have Robert Kennedy killed to pave the way for Nixon’s election, and gives him even further help with another assassin’s bullet, this time aimed at George Wallace, which results in a landslide re-election four years after that. Nixon’s direct association with JFK’s murder comes in the form of his extreme paranoia about the “Cubans.” Nixon had run an illegal operation as vice-president through the C.I.A. to put friendly dictators in power in unstable countries, which included Cuba, and there is a further implication that this operation was somehow connected to the Kennedy assassination.

Stone’s directing is perfect for the subject with lots of Dutch angles and chiaroscuro lighting, in addition to the black and white, which give the picture the real feel of a horror film. But the acting is what really makes the film memorable. Anthony Hopkins doesn’t look exactly like Nixon, but his gestures and mannerisms are spot on. Joan Allen as his long-suffering wife, Pat, is a tremendous addition to the cast and was nominated for an Oscar along with Hopkins. James Woods is utterly compelling as H.R. Haldeman, Nixon’s closest aide and most avid supporter. The late J.T. Walsh plays John Ehrlichman, special assistant to the president, and wearing an appliance and doing a great job with the vocal patterns is Paul Sorvino as Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. But the list of stars is endless, Mary Steenbergen as Nixon’s mother, E.G. Marshall as John Mitchell, Madeline Kahn as Martha Mitchell, David Paymer as Ron Ziegler, David Hyde Pierce as John Dean, Powers Boothe as Alexander Haig, and Ed Harris as Howard Hunt. All of them revolve expertly around Hopkins as he pulls the viewer into Nixon’s fear and loathing and paranoia. Ironically, he is destined to be one of the most remembered presidents the country has ever had, and Nixon is as good a place to start as any in getting to know this infamous figure.

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