Oliver Stone’s Nixon is best when it’s dazed and confused.

Directed by Oliver Stone
A Hollywood Pictures Release

“Always remember: Others may hate you, but those who hate you don’t win unless you hate them, and then you destroy yourself.” So says Richard Nixon (Anthony Hopkins) at the end of Oliver Stone’s Nixon, in his farewell speech to his staff. As he and Pat (Joan Allen) leave the East Room for the last time, everyone stands and applauds. Coming at the end of a movie crammed with images of his paranoia, desperation, vulnerability and hate, Nixon’s bit of advice seems ironic in the extreme (more bogus than affecting). This irony is exacerbated when the film’s reenactment cuts to “actual footage”: the “real” Nixon and Pat board the helicopter outside the White House, he does his grotesque hunched-up double-V sign at the doorway. And then the scene cuts to his funeral, where Clinton and Dole declare him a good guy.

This sequence, which runs under the closing credits, drives home the movie’s most cogent point: that Nixon was always blurring fact and fiction, before he was a movie, and before he was Stone’s.

This blurring doesn’t make Nixon special, particularly among politicians or filmic objects. But it does make him (productively and perversely) exemplary, ripe for Stone’s ongoing project, which is, after all, obsessed with such ambiguity. Add to this Stone’s penchant for cultural pulse-taking (I can’t think of another filmmaker who gets people in a lather as predictably as he does) and his heavy foot on the publicity pedal (publicly feuding with Tricia and Julie and the reverential Yorba Linda Nixon Library), and the film was destined to open with the standard “debate” already in place.

And the blurring, which is the most interesting part of this film, or Stone’s work more generally, gets lost in the rush to make absolute claims. Some folks defend the guy’s vision, passion and technique. And others decry his effort to “rewrite history,” to foist his rowdy vision of the planet onto gullible viewers. (For instance, on this past Sunday’s Meet The Press, pundits Cokie Roberts and George Will worried out loud that viewers will read the film straight, like “history.” You just can’t trust the rabble to know what’s what.)

What this debate misses is that Stone’s gift, aside from his increasingly annoying sense of singular mission, is confusion, his talent for spectacular visuals and killer overstatement mixed up with occasional cunning insight (and his sense of humor: let’s not forget his self-deprecating gig on Saturday Night Live, commenting on George Bush’s vomiting trajectory, “Back, and to the left”). In Nixon Stone’s relentless-meter is dialed way up. The thing begins with a disclaimer that (basically) says, since “the historical record is incomplete,” we’ll be making some stuff up. (Meanwhile, Stone is hawking The Book of the Film for $15, with gazillions of footnotes and some Nixon Tape transcripts so that you know that he and co-writers Stephen J. Rivele and Christopher Wilkinson are serious men.)

From here, the movie advances an overwrought, condensed profile of Tricky Dick the Tragic Hero. Like Welles’ Kane or Shakespeare’s HamletMacbethLear, Stone’s Nixon is huge, ambitious and afraid, brilliant and petty. He flashes back repeatedly to a black-and-white Whittier childhood — his Quaker-saint mother (Mary Steenburgen), dad (Tom Bower) in a bloody butcher’s apron, two brothers dying young (and others played by Sean and Mikey Stone) — which grants the proceedings an overt “psychologizing” angle. He’s haunted by his mom (literally at the end, she appears to him as he’s about to resign) and, less obviously, by Pat (if he can’t put his finger on Pat’s function for him, we can; what’s left out is her stake in any of this, but that’s another movie, surely not Stone’s).

The tragedy, no surprise, comes in Nixon’s lack of self-consciousness. In lieu of such introspection, we get a few mini-sledgehammer analyses, including one by Kissinger (of all people!) who, while watching Nixon fidget through “I am not a crook” on TV, says, “Can you imagine what this man would have been had he ever been loved?” This simplistic breakdown leads pretty much on cue to Nixon’s obsession with… Kennedy. And this, okay, is a given, he’s (in) Stone’s Movie, which is forever about Kennedy, the loss of Kennedy, or the gods’ fury that said loss hath wrought (there’s even mention of a plot to kill Kennedy, filtered through “Jack Jones,” aka Larry Hagman as a composite character based in Dallas, complete with cowboy hat and sleazy millions).

The connection between Nixon and JFK (or Nixon and JFK) shifts between metaphysical and metaphorical: Hopkins sweats on a puny TV screen while Kennedy shines during the debates (by breaching some national security about Cuba); hoary Nixon’s caught in repeated low-angle shots from beneath the famous White House portrait of young virile Jack, looking down on him. None of this is subtle. Even when myopic Nixon doesn’t comprehend the diverse meanings of events, seeing them through a panicky haze as being all about him, we can always see he’s missing a point that we’re getting (or so we like to think, and Stone makes it easy to think this way).

There are a couple of over-the-top moments where the crazy opera of Nixonness seems primed to take over and the movie seems ready to gallop off into some lunatic sunset. Discussing Kent State during a dinner meeting on the Sequoia (his yacht), he exclaims, “Dead kids! How the hell could we ever have given the Democrats a weapon like this?” (This in the face of suggestions that he ought to offer condolences to the families.) He looks down at his plate, and the point of view shot shows his meat bleeding dark and heavy all over the white china. He leaves the table in a melodramatic panic, but not until he’s decided to recognize China, which will diffuse outrage over the “dead kids” and get him re-elected. A few minutes later, he’s still wrestling with Vietnam, and meets a group of student protesters at the Lincoln Memorial. When a girl tells him that the “system” is an uncontrollable “beast,” he takes this as dramatic revelation, accompanied by swooping-crane camera and John Williams score triumphant.

Both these scenes illustrate Nixon’s pathological genius and Stone’s vexed and canny relationship to it. According to the film, Nixon possessed a remarkable talent for emotional and moral maneuvering, for making himself the victim, and more often than not, for conceiving himself in the third person (“Nixon can’t say that!”). That the movie makes this ability so disturbing doesn’t go a long way toward explaining why or how he was elected to so many offices (even with the seeming ethical x-ray offered by television, and he does look decidedly bad on it): Stone’s Nixon is never thrilling, but he’s often frightening. This isn’t to say that Hopkins isn’t moving, but his performance seems to me always leaning toward creepy — not seductive like Lecter, but dolorous and awkward.

If Nixon works, this is what makes it work, this ugliness, this juxtaposing of pieces that don’t fit. It’s grand-scale moviemaking, but eventually its scope and polish are less compelling than its messiness and incompleteness. For all his posturing (and in spite of NBK, gonzo-pissed-off-blown-away filmmaking), Stone the maestro is no “subversive” (the film’s endorsed by Newsweek, the New York Times, Siskel and Ebert: it’s not about to transform any “systems”). Nixon is most entertaining when at its wildest (which is not to say smartest), when it capitulates to the Nixon Myth that self-destruction is impossible and runs full tilt into weirdness —Madeleine Kahn giddy as Martha Mitchell (“Your smile and your face,” she tells Nixon, “are never in the same place at the same time”), James Woods as Haldeman making faces at Paul Sorvino as Kissinger, or Nixon running away from his bloody plate. Maybe it didn’t happen, but that’s not to say it’s not true.

    • Josh Kruger is an award-winning writer and editor-in-chief of Philadelphia Weekly. His past work includes years as a journalist with Philadelphia Weekly, his PW column “The Uncomfortable Whole” winning multiple awards, including the Society of Professional Journalists’ First Place award for newspaper commentary in both 2014 and 2015. Josh has written for a variety of local and national publications, and his work often includes his perspective as someone with lived experience with HIV, homelessness, poverty, trauma, and addiction along with expert analysis from years of experience in journalism and public service following a five year stint in local government communications. He is a member of Philly’s local LGBTQ community, a parishioner at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, a militant bicyclist, and resident of the Point Breeze section of the city with his cat, a senior tom named Mason.

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