YOU COULD SAY that Nixon is Oliver Stone's Citizen Kane, and not necessarily mean it as praise. Stone's three-hour bio-pic begins in 1973, with Tricky Dick (Anthony Hopkins) taking a last breath of sorts (he's about to resign), clutching a glass of scotch, and brooding drunkenly while a reel-to-reel deck unspools his fate. The Watergate tapes are Nixon's Rosebud: the primary symbol of the man's life, which the film will go on to explicate in flashback. Lest we miss this early Kane
allusion, Stone next one-ups Orson Welles's classic opener with a hilariously immodest crane shot that slides through a gap in the White House gate just as the music swells and a computer-generated flicker of lightning fills the night sky. Is this the wrath of God, the rebirth of narrative cinema, or the end of Richard Nixon? None of the above--it's just the beginning of Nixon.
Stone would be a brilliant filmmaker if only for his calculated ability to inspire op-ed hysteria. Last Sunday's Strib predicted "a public Stoning" of Nixon, yet it seems unlikely that the movie will stir up a shitstorm akin to the one around JFK. For one thing, the new film delivers popular myth rather than "countermyth," and thus it's less bombastic than the bulk of Stone's overwrought oeuvre. And where JFK turned both Jim Garrison and the fallen leader into figures of Christlike sanctity, Nixon portrays its subject as an asshole--an approach that most of us, I'd guess, wouldn't disagree with. (Hunter S. Thompson said it best: "My mother hates Nixon, my son hates Nixon, I hate Nixon, and this hatred has brought us together.") Besides, how could Nixon be more egregiously revisionist than last year's round of televised eulogies? Knowing this, Stone concludes his epic with video footage of Clinton's wistful salute, and his own voiceover reminder that only a fraction of Nixon's atrocities have as yet been made public.
Aside from the suggestion that Nixon had a hand in a plot to assassinate Castro (an early '60s scheme which may have come home to roost in Dealey Plaza), most of what Stone presents here is familiar psycho-biography: Nixon's paranoid vindictiveness; his deep-seated inferiority complex; his intense hatred for the Kennedys. (Nixon, the son of a grocer, went to Whittier rather than Harvard.) The film's childhood flashbacks are outrageously simplistic, but never less than entertaining. High school football coach: "That Nixon is the worst athlete I've ever seen--but he's got guts!" Nixon's father: "You're not going to get anywhere on your good looks." Mom (Mary Steenburgen): "You may fool the world, Richard, but not me." Stone argues that Nixon spent his political career fluctuating between a desperate need for the approval of his Quaker mom, and a desire to live out his dad's masochistic belief that endless struggle is the mark of a great man.
Both Stone and the uncannily imitative, brilliantly monstrous Hopkins read Nixon as the embodiment of pure psychosis. In three hours, the movie never once hints that the man had any genuine interest in politics or love for his country. For him, the presidency was about dick-waving virility, pure and simple. Having served in Vietnam, Stone is sufficiently outraged that Nixon's plan to end the war got him elected in '68, even though that plan turned out to involve an escalation of bombing and the secret invasion of Cambodia; the director presents these events in a frenzied montage that's more disturbingly surreal than anything in Natural Born Killers. Later, Stone stages a scene in which Nixon, dining on a yacht with his advisers, vows to "drop the big one if necessary," but is overcome by guilt after seeing an undercooked steak oozing blood on his plate. Whether fully intended or not, Nixon's horror is more potent by contrast to its liberal dose of laughs. The climactic moment in which Nixon asks Kissinger (Paul Sorvino) to get on his knees and pray with him is comic enough, but Kissinger's punchline--"This isn't going to leak, is it?"--moves the film into the territory of anarchic satire.
Stone shouldn't be faulted for using farce to portray a man who often likened rival pols, reporters, hippies, and the Vietcong to the childhood foes who teased him on the playground for being ugly. In this way, the film's most pungent jokes are indistinguishable from its insights. Stone's blackest conceit comes in suggesting that Nixon wasn't significantly more corrupt than the larger political system--and, if we'd dare to admit it, a fair number of us. Indeed, how else could he have succeeded in politics for so long? There's a chilling, bitterly funny scene in which Nixon, given to having conversations with White House paintings of dead presidents, looks to a JFK portrait and says, "When they look at you, they see what they want to be; when they look at me, they see what they are." If Nixon is often an excruciating film to watch, it owes partly to Stone's insinuation that we're responsible for creating such a monster. CP For more reviews, see Film Clips on page 27.
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