DAILY FILM DOSE: A Daily Film Appreciation and Review Blog: NIXON

Thursday 19 March 2009


Nixon (1995) dir. Oliver Stone
Starring: Anthony Hopkins, Joan Allen, James Woods, J.T. Walsh, Paul Sorvino


Certainly the last great film from Oliver Stone is “Nixon”, which came at the end of a remarkable 10-year streak of diverse and provocative films that both commented on and became hallmarks of contemporary culture and politics. It's a bold 192mins sprawling epic which never loses sight of the intimate complexities of its main character.

The film begins in 1974, towards the end of his quick decline and before his impeachment. We get to see Nixon drunk in his private study listening to those wiretap recordings and destroying the famed 18 1/2 mins gap of tape which some assumed to be his smoking gun. Through a number of ongoing flashbacks Stone moves back to chart the course of his life from his humble childhood in Whittier CA, where we see Nixon’s family life and how the expectations of his family affect his decisions in the present to his failed Presidential attempt against Kennedy in 1960 to his two terms in the White House and the Watergate scandal.

“Nixon” makes a great accompany piece to 1991’s “JFK”. Stone’s “Nixon” is less concerned about conspiracy as creating a composite of his political life and a character study of an admirable but flawed man.  While the extensive hallucinatory multi-media editing of archival footage in “JFK” compliments the conspiratory and hypothetical nature of that film Stone uses just the right amount of restraint with his technique in “Nixon”. While similar stylistically it never feels like Stone repeating himself.

The cavalcade of talented actors who fill the shoes of real life characters is a treat to watch. Stone smartly identifies each character with his role in the opening credits to give us all a head start (ie. David Hyde Piece as John Dean) allowing Stone to jump right in without labouring us with exposition.

The actors playing these characters 'sing' their often complex political jargon dialogue with complete honesty and conviction. We get to see James Woods as H.R. Halderman at the top of his acting career, in one of his best performances, and as his compatriot John Erlichman, J.T. Walsh, then one of the best character actors working in Hollywood. Walsh would sadly die only 3 years later robbing us of more fine performances. A roll call of great character actors too numerous to count make every scene in “Nixon” a delight.

The character of Richard Nixon seems to have enough complexities as to warrant repeated tellings of his story. Both Frank Langella’s Nixon and Anthony Hopkins' version explores the man's internal self-loathing and inferiority complex which allowed him to think he needed to cheat win his election. From two different stories Ron Howard’s film and Stone’s film show the crafty intelligence of Nixon and his supreme work ethic to maintain power.

"Nixon", in many ways, captures the best and worst of the American dream, the story of a poor farmer’s boy from Whittier California who rose to the top of the world through his shear will power and desire to win, but fell hard from the exploitation of that dream. Enjoy.


Mark A. Fedeli said...

glad you brought up the performances, Alan. here's a question for you:

in all of Oliver Stone's best films, he seems to get pitch perfect performances from all of his ensemble actors (even those that are only on-screen for a few minutes). what are your thoughts on his ability to make this happen so consistently?

obviously, it's a combination of casting, direction, editing, and writing; but Stone seems to be on another level when it comes to managing these stars. just look at the credits for JFK, does any film have more past and present household names or well-known faces than that? does any film use them all so successfully (and believably)?

Alan Bacchus said...

Hey Mark,
One of the consistencies in that '86-'95 period were his great performances. Even look at Natural Born Killers - so over the top absurd, yet great performance from Tommy Lee Jones, Downey Jr. Sizemore etc. His work with actors is one of the underratted aspects of his game.

I liked W. as well