Eric Plaag and Matt Smith

From the Vault: Nixon

In Film, Reviews on December 21, 2011 at 6:32 pm

It’s been almost 16 years, but Eric got his first start as a movie reviewer writing for a local newspaper called The Manchester Cricket on the North Shore of Massachusetts. Much as now, he did not get paid, but his reviews appeared twice a month on average (“When there’s space,” his editor insisted) until Eric eventually moved away from that town. His crowning achievement was when he correctly picked the winners of all six of the major awards for the 1996 Oscars. To celebrate the olden, golden days, TheSplitScreen will occasionally run a reprint of one of Eric’s old reviews in this space. This week, to put you all in the Christmas spirit, we check in on what Eric said about Oliver Stone’s Nixon. This review first appeared on January 26, 1996.

By Eric Plaag

Those who saw Oliver Stone’s JFK will find it easy to imagine what Nixon must be like. Surely, Nixon will be blamed for more than just a third-rate burglary. Stone has developed a nasty reputation for bending the facts to suit his drama, and he’s not done much to counter that perception.

Sure enough, he does it again with Nixon. Our late President had a role in attempts to kill Castro, Stone suggests, and he may have unwittingly had something to do with the deaths of both Kennedys. Ultimately, though, this movie is not about conspiracy theories. Rather, it is a character study of epic proportions, worthy of the respect reserved for any Shakespearian tragedy.

Nixon is not an easy film to watch. Running just over three hours, the film takes us through Nixon’s final months as President, with frequent and sometimes jarring flashbacks to significant events in his life (as in JFK, good editing makes the picture a cinematic feast for the eyes). Accompanying this effective chaos is Anthony Hopkins’s mesmerizing performance as a seemingly schizophrenic and paranoid Nixon who speaks of himself in the third person. Though the image of Hannibal Lecter is difficult to shake at first, Hopkins nevertheless portrays a frighteningly accurate Nixon who elicits from us — dare I say it? — sympathy.

There is something heroic about Nixon as Stone perceives him, and his tragic flaw — his overzealousness in mistrusting everyone — is captured perfectly. Nixon’s suspicions define his success. They allow him to weed out those who liked “having Nixon to kick around.” But they also lead to his humbling failure, for it is his White House tapes, his effort to have record of what everyone ever said within the inner sanctum, that finally doom his presidency.

Stone’s film is served well by an outstanding supporting cast. Relative unknown Joan Allen, as a harried and too-forgiving Pat Nixon, holds her own against Hopkins, and Paul Sorvino’s guttural turn as Kissinger is better than Kissinger himself. Other fine performances from James Woods (H.R. Haldeman), David Hyde Pierce (John Dean), and Bob Hoskins (J. Edgar Hoover) allow the picture to accomplish a startling suggestion of truth, even if the details aren’t always accurate.

Finally, it comes back to this, this notion of truth in Stone’s filmmaking. As I left the theater, one patron said to me, “I hate documentaries that lie.” While there are certainly untruths in this picture — “composites” and “reasonable speculations,” Stone calls them — the viewer must remember that Nixon is not a documentary. It is drama. Like Shakespeare, Stone has taken an historical situation and dramatized it in an effort to bring us closer to the humanity of the characters. We will never know the “real” Hamlet, and getting to know the “real” Nixon is just as unlikely. But Stone does bring us the Nixon that we imagine, a desperately lonely and frightened man who, as Kissinger says late in the movie, “had the defects of his qualities.” Taken as tragedy, as the historical drama Stone intends it to be, Nixon is a stellar film.

5 out 5 stars

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