Friday, September 17, 2010

Oliver Stone: Nixon

[This is the final installment of my look at the films of Oliver Stone from 1986-1995. I've placed a convenient little pole on the right side of the blog for you all to partake in. That's right, I'm giving you the power to decide what I watch and write about for the next director retrospective! Hehe. Exciting, I know. So, be democratic and vote!]

And so we come to the end of this "retrospective". Yes, retrospective is in quotes because I was only ever interested in covering the years when Stone's films were popular. I found that by looking at this output of films from 1986 – 1995, Oliver Stone was unlike any other American filmmaker during that time. He was a filmmaker, as Roger Ebert said, "that sought controversy" instead of running away from it; often explicating characters, real-life figures, and themes that always had a seething anger and disillusionment with the "system" running through them. Towards the end of his prolific run, Stone became a kind of loose cannon filmmaker; an artist who started to become more stylistic in approach, and where that style dominated substance. This caused his films to make less and less money as Stone was clearly losing touch with the audience who was paying to see Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July (by the time of Nixon's theatrical run was over, Stone's reputation and disconnect with his audience had gotten so bad that the film only made about 14 million of its 44 million budget back); however, box office success or failure isn't an appropriate barometer for how good or bad a film really is, and even though Stone was alienating his audience with films like JFK and Natural Born Killers, (causing him to become even more experimental after Nixon, and failing with films like U-Turn, Any Given Sunday, and Alexander) he was arguably making his most interesting pictures during that time, too. The perfect bit of final punctuation to this prolific era is Nixon; a film that is certainly one of Stone's most intense character studies, most stylistic (compounding upon the schizophrenic aesthetic of JFK, his other political picture), and certainly most surprising.

Why would a filmmaker as progressively liberal and antagonistic seek to make a film that better understand one of the most reviled Republican presidents? Well, because he's Oliver Stone, and he loves to stir shit up. That's the only plausible reason I can think of for this "attempt to understand the truth" – as the title card that opens the film states – as it pertains to Richard Nixon (of course, stone would explicate an even more enigmatic president 13 years later). And Nixon does indeed turn out to be one of Stone's most surprisingly poignant films. It's also a helluva an entertaining film. Stone's biopic swirls through the Nixon (Anthony Hopkins) timeline beginning with the breaking-in of the Watergate Hotel, to Nixon recording all of his wrongs by a fireplace, to attempts to fill in the blanks of Nixon's childhood (specifically how the loss of his oldest brother devastated him, and how his strong, dogmatic mother shaped him into being the man we "knew" Nixon to be), and how he seemed to try really hard to love his wife Pat (the brains and sense of their operation, and brilliantly portrayed by Joan Allen in the film's strongest role) and stay true to his word to her to stay out of politics after losing the gubernatorial race in California.

What makes the film so interesting is the almost Greek-like tragedy Stone paints Nixon's life as. Here is a man that, as a child, could never get out from under the shadow of his brother and receive the same love from his parents that his brother did, and, once in office, could never get out from under the shadow of Kennedy. The film takes liberties, no doubt, with Stone's filling in of the blanks in order to give Nixon some kind of context (he always seemed to play things close to the chest) as he, like Stone's future subject George W. Bush, was always an enigmatic figure. A lot of hatred and the things that were going wrong with the country at the time of his presidency was projected onto Nixon, however, the film looks to resolve nothing about the man in regards to how he handled everything (aside from showing Nixon's drinking problem and declining health). Like Bush, Nixon was a man who seemed to be out of his league – a puppet who just wanted be liked – as Stone seems to really think that what the driving motivation and purpose was for Nixon seeking office was not to affect change, but simply to be liked, to be approved. What Stone does, like he did with Bush, was make a most-hated figurehead elicit some empathy as he is portrayed as nothing more than a pawn, and how can one really hate the pawn more than they hate the person moving the pieces?

I mentioned earlier that the film's look compounds upon the "vertical cutting" style Stone tinkered with in JFK and Natural Born Killers. He also has longtime DP Robert Richardson play around the same kind of harsh lighting that blankets the lenses of eye glasses and smoked-filled rooms (reminding me of Casino, but more those similarities later…) that was used so brilliantly in the aforementioned films (as well as Heaven and Earth). The film is as pleasurable to look at as any of Stone's experimental exercises of the 90's, and like Forrest Gump, does a pretty decent job intersplicing actual news reel footage with actors from the movie playing major historical figures. The news reel footage helps fill in the blanks, and in a rather clever way, providing the context to Stone's massive story about Richard Nixon.

Perhaps more than any other Stone film, though, Nixon is truly memorable for the amazing ensemble cast. Great performances abound from a bevy of character actors (J.T. Walsh, John Diehl, Bob Hoskins, David Hyde Pierce, Ed Harris, David Paymer, E.G. Marshall, Powers Boothe, Paul Sorvino, and Kevin Dunn), but the real highlights here are the ones with all the screentime: Hopkins and Allen. Hopkins' body language as Nixon (Hopkins said that it was the isolation and loneliness of Nixon that intrigued him most about the role) is tremendous in the way he portrays a person who is unsure how to present himself to the public (which is why many people say that if you listen to his famous televised debate with Kennedy, people said Nixon actually won that debate, but because it was televised, people liked the way Kennedy composed himself), and a man who was always concerned with how the public viewed him. Once president, Nixon (as seen by Stone) was a man who was obsessed with being liked in the same way that Kennedy was liked, and in Stone's mind it's part of what destroyed Nixon's soul and made him such a tragic figure.

The casting for the film was interesting as like with most of Stone's films the studio never wanted Anthony Hopkins to play the role of Nixon, they wanted Stone's first suggestions for the role: Tom Hanks or Jack Nicholson. But when Stone saw Remains of the Day and Shadowlands he saw an actor who understood the isolation and solitary mood he wanted for his Nixon. Prior to Hopkins getting the role, though, the studio and the filmmaker tossed around the idea of Tommy Lee Jones, Robin Williams (!), and Gene Hackman. The filmmaker did meet with Warren Beatty about the role, and even did some line readings together and bringing in Joan Allen to read lines for Pat Nixon; however, in what should come as absolutely no surprise, the idea of Beatty playing Nixon fell through when he and Stone disagreed over all of the script changes Beatty wanted to make. So impressed though were Beatty and Stone with Allen, that they knew from there that they had their Pat Nixon. After the deal with Beatty fell through, Stone contacted Hopkins and finalized the deal for the actor to play Nixon in what would be one of the actor's best roles.

Nixon is Stone's Casino. What I mean by that is that the film was lukewarmly received by audiences, and even though the film was critically well received (mostly for its performances) a lot of people saw the film as nothing more than Stone going back to the political well and making another JFK. The reason I bring up Casino is because in 1995 when Martin Scorsese made that movie, a lot of people dismissed it as a lesser version of Goodfellas; both films were about the mob, both films were ultra violent, both films were kinetically edited and linked by their use of similar music, both films starred Joe Pesci and Robert DeNiro, and both films aesthetically looked the same. However, a lot of people (me included) think that one could argue in favor of Casino actually being the better movie, and the same could be said about Nixon. In my review of JFK I mentioned that it was my favorite Stone film, and that I thought it was a masterpiece, and both of those things are true; however, I can easily see how some would think Nixon is the better movie. On the surface the two films seem similar in the way that Goodfellas and Casino seem similar, but there is actually quite a bit of differences and nuances that the two films, despite their looking the same on the surface, have that give them their own distinctions and charms.

Nixon opens with an apt quote from the Bible asking (in summery): "what has a man gained if he's lost his soul"? This quote resonated with me throughout the three-plus hours of Nixon as I think Stone's point of the movie –as it is said in the scene with the news reel footage – is that we never really knew who Nixon was, we only knew what he did and how he portrayed himself to the public. He was always willing to blame the press and misconceptions of him as a person rather than looking at himself and facing his obvious flaws. Oliver Stone understood this about Richard Nixon, and even if he hated the man (which I'm guessing he did) and what his presidency stood for, Stone clearly shows that he's willing to step outside of the box to give us an introspective and entertaining (and wonderfully shot and edited) story about the rise and fall of a despised president and flawed man that is, in its essence, a very human one. It just may be the last great film Stone has for us.


  1. Your equation of Nixon with Casino is absolutely correct, and the dismissal of both films as mere do-overs of familiar subjects infuriated me at the time and now. You're also right to highlight Nixon's ensemble, including Hopkins on top; he hasn't done better since then. I think you go too far, however, equating Nixon with W. as characters. Stone clearly respects Nixon's diplomatic skill, and overall sees him as someone who could have put up more of a fight against "the beast" if not for his fatal insecurity and resentment of the liberal establishment. Nixon's a tragic figure for Stone in a way W. could never be. That aside, you've done a great job doing this still-neglected film justice.

  2. Another great Stone post! I am in total agreement with you on this one (big surprise). I would say that as much as I love JFK and watch it repeatedly, I think that NIXON is probably is masterpiece. Such an incredible film and, as you point out, an incredible tragedy as it shows the rise and fall of a flawed man.

    And what a cast! I love the extended cut which features a creepy Sam Waterston playing Richard Helms. The scene he has with Hopkins is incredible.

  3. Excellent review (especially, as Samuel mentioned, the comparison to "Casino"). I think "Natural Born Killers," released the year before, also had an effect on how "Nixon" was received, i.e., audiences were worn out on Stone's overkill style. In hindsight, though, standing alone, the film is simply great.

    As for "W.," I think Stone has sympathy for that character too, just in a different way. "Nixon" is an epic tragedy. "W." is a mournful farce, something of a first, yet entirely appropriate to its subject. It's another film that suffered from bad timing: Few wanted to spend any more time with a guy we were finally getting rid off. Yet, like "Nixon," I think it will look better with a few years' distance.

    Thanks for doing this series, Kevin. I enjoyed it.

  4. Great comparison with Casino.

    I disagree that Nixon is portrayed as a pawn in the film, I think Stone very much potrays him as the architect of his own doom, even when he loses control of "The Beast."

    I've always had a soft spot of Nixon, as a subject if not an actual politician. He's the American Richard III and the brooding shadow he cast over American politics still hasn't been calculated.

    I recommend that anyone intrigued by the film check out Rick Perelstein's Nixonland, which is a masterpiece and for my money the best piece of history yet written in this century.

  5. Samuel:

    Thanks for the comment. You're right in that I didn't clarify my point about the similarities between Dubbya and Nixon in regards to how Stone views the two. I guess I just see it as Stone taking it easy on two presidents that a lot of people probably thought he should have skewered a lot more than he did; instead, he decided to take rather measured approaches to explicating these men deeper. In the case of Dubbya it was the fact that he, like Nixon, was always living in someone's shadow, and so desperately wanted to please that he did it at the expense of a nation (I have to believe that Bush knew he was out of his league as anything more than a Governor).

    They're both different kinds of subjects for Stone, and even though W. may not be as dramatic or veiled in Greek Tragedy, it certainly evokes more empathy for a guy most people thought was a heartless bastard.

    But I see what you're saying. I think that Stone has more respect for Nixon's ability to get out of being a pawn than Bush...which of course makes it all the more tragic that a diplomat like Nixon couldn't escape his feeble self-image and constant need to be accepted and to please.

    I'm glad you(and everyone else) agree with me about the comparison to CASINO. I never understood the backlash against Scorsese's film.

  6. J.D.:

    Thanks for the constant support during this retrospective. It's been great to have your comments here furthering the conversation. I'm glad we're in agreement on this one! This is probably my favorite of Stone's casts.

  7. Craig:

    Thanks for the kind words. It's been great to have you follow along (have you voted in the poll? Hehe). I think we're in agreement about Stone's amount of empathy for a guy like Dubbya...I just didn't know how to articulate it the way you do in your comment. And yes, that film suffered from horrible timing. I remember liking it a lot, but thinking the same thing you mention in your comment: Why am I spending two hours learning about a guy I've been desperately trying to run away from for eight years.

  8. Bryce:

    Thanks for the great comment. See my comment above to Samuel in response to where I'm coming from in regards to how I see Stone viewing Nixon and Dubbya.

  9. Exciting role in a charming man, even if the end of a little sympathy for Nixon as the film ends with his burial in 1994, some comments that the service of President Clinton and a summary of his time to remember their successes . One final note: Honor Paul Sorvino, who hit the spot-on Henry Kissinger.

  10. And it is long. This is not a popcorn movie. It is very sad and terrible. A glance in a very strange disease. But a 7 out of 10 is not off.

  11. Nixon has received four Oscar nominations for Best Actor Anthony Hopkins, Joan Allen as Best Actress, Best Original Screenplay and Best Score. Sad it did not come home a winner in one of these categories.

  12. I recommend this film to all those who love the drama. Fans of the distribution and Oliver Stone will not be disappointed.
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