There’s a scene in Oliver Stone’s Nixon (Hollywood, R) that hasn’t stopped haunting me. It’s 1973, and President Richard Nixon (Anthony Hopkins), up to his stooped shoulders in Watergate, is looking over transcripts of the secret White House tapes that are about to be made public. The transcripts are full of Nixonian bile: anti-Semitic comments, ”nigger,” his constant, angry swearing. One of the President’s men suggests that any offensive sections be blacked out and replaced with the phrase ”expletive deleted,” at which point Nixon grabs the transcripts and begins using a felt marker to cross out the forbidden words, first one, then another, then another still, more and more frantically, until he sees that his coarse, fulminating language — his poison — is all over the pages. For a moment, he cringes in horror, realizing that a public display of his obscenity would have broken the heart of his mother (a strict Quaker who addressed her own son as ”thee”). Suddenly, he’s seeing himself through her eyes, not as President Nixon but as the torn, disreputable man, the violator, he has become. The fury and humiliation of that moment are Shakespearean.
Oliver Stone has a deeply subversive temperament (he knows one or two things about shocking the public himself), and in Nixon you can feel the charged iconoclastic thrill he gets from portraying Richard Nixon as a bitter, shambling lout, a man ruled, for all his rigidity, by a kind of spiritual violence. Nixon is, on some level, an act of outrage. Yet the rancidly uptight, tormented Nixon Stone shows us is hardly a fiction; he is, by many accounts, the one who really existed behind closed doors. Stone doesn’t need to bring Richard Nixon down — Nixon did that to himself — and as the 3 hours and 10 minutes of Nixon unspool, in a hypnotic multimedia barrage, it’s clear that what’s driving the film is Stone’s desire to get at the truth of who Nixon was, to see him not as scoundrel but as flesh, as a brilliant, warped figure whose pathology could lead America only because it meshed with a larger invisible pattern of corruption, a shadow government of lies.
Stone wants to get it all in: Alger Hiss and J. Edgar Hoover; the Checkers speech and the 1960 presidential debate; Nixon’s boyhood, his marriage, and his election strategies; the atrocity of Vietnam and the triumph of China; the booze, the rage, and the ”conversations” with White House portraits; the backroom deals and the deals behind the back room; Watergate and (do I need to say it?) the JFK assassination, which now becomes Stone’s mystical metaphor—the one event we can’t know. Most of the facts are familiar (the film all but counts on your acquaintance with them), yet it’s overwhelming to see the many sides of Richard Nixon brought together with this kind of epic force. More than just biography, Nixon is a dizzying and cathartic spectacle—a free fall through 50 years of American political imagination. Stone, I think, has become the most exciting filmmaker of his time. You don’t just watch his movies—they get inside you, like drugs. Nixon, driven by Stone’s rapt inquiry and dread, has an almost talismanic power, as if we were seeing a veil ripped off events we only thought we understood.
With his broad face and bull neck, Anthony Hopkins is hardly a dead ringer for Nixon, and it’s jarring, at first, to see him re-create the famous body language: the ironing-board posture and hideously fake grin (it comes on as if a switch were being flipped in his brain), the thrusting, sunken head that makes him look like as much of a walking ghoul as Ed Sullivan. Yet what Hopkins brings off here is extraordinary. Working from the outside in (as Laurence Olivier did), he uses his duplication of Nixon’s neurotic mannerisms to burrow right into his mind.
Hopkins’ Nixon is an awkward, touchingly repressed figure driven by the wounded adolescent sensitivity he has carried into his adult life. Every election is personal, every opponent an enemy, a rival for the public’s love. (He despises the charismatic Kennedys the way a high school loser might envy the ”in” crowd.) In 1962, after Nixon is defeated in the California governor’s race, his wife, Pat (Joan Allen), a loving yet guarded woman with the slightly sullen passivity of a ’50s housewife, requests a divorce, realizing that politics has become his true mate. As he promises her anything in order to save the marriage, the drama of the moment lies in the devious subtlety of his constant, lawyerly manipulations. Hopkins’ voice is a little higher than Nixon’s, but he does an uncanny imitation of Tricky Dick’s vocal cadences, the oily jocularity masking a black pit of mistrust. That voice is theatrical, lulling (it can’t stop listening to itself), and after a while I found myself forgetting what the real Nixon sounded or even looked like. When Nixon asks Pat if ”there’ll be no more talk of divorce” (i.e., he wants to know that his public reputation will remain untainted), we realize that he’s agreeing to ”retire” from politics to save his political life.
Even those who didn’t respond to Natural Born Killers may now have a sense of what Stone’s turbulent, hallucinatory style is all about. More than any director before him, he has captured the violent free-associative rhythms of a feral, jagged modern mind. The shock cuts from color to black and white suggest a sudden X ray into the characters’ souls. The contrasting film stocks (newsreel for Nixon’s college-football days, grainy video for a ’70s press conference) create a media-age kaleidoscope, a fever dream of memory and mood. Stone, zigzagging through postwar history, doesn’t need to pile on every detail of Watergate or the bombing of Cambodia. He’s after the larger truth of what happened, the way that destruction and deceit could become the motivating soul of government. In Nixon, the American system is a ”beast” that feeds on the aggression of those vicious enough to claw their way into it. The encounters between Nixon and his advisers, notably Henry Kissinger (Paul Sorvino), brilliantly anatomized as a yes-man who knew how to manipulate the President’s insecurities, are riveting dramas of subliminal treachery. Nixon plugs himself into the beast, but his tragic flaw is that he can’t trust the system even when he’s running it. Watergate is the culmination of his masochistic paranoia—the beast eating its own tail.
The movie’s grand irony — and tragedy — is that the Richard Nixon we see is not a bad man. He’s a blind man who longs for the light. He has the ruthless intelligence to see politics as a death game, a dirty business that needs to be done. But he also has the desire to be loved for it. By the end of the movie, he is standing alone, like Charles Foster Kane or the Michael Corleone of The Godfather, Part II, his pursuit of power having reduced life to nothing but power. The White House becomes his version of Kane’s hall of mirrors (all that’s left is his own broken ego), the entire country a reflection of his self-annihilating disgrace. Nixon leaves you stricken yet cleansed. Stone has made a great, shattering movie by bringing us closer than ever to the President we loved — too easily — to hate. A