August 13, 1996 -- You have to admire Oliver Stone's ability, his enterprise and his daring in his most ambitious film yet, "Nixon."
The maverick director has outdone himself with a visually stunning, sweeping epic of the life of one of this country's most enigmatic political figures.
Nixon is played by Oscar-winning Anthony Hopkins ("Silence of the Lambs"), who gives a great performance, but is outdone by Joan Allen, who plays the long-suffering Pat Nixon. Both Pat and Dick are portrayed as extraordinarily complicated people. Huge ranges of emotion are played out on the screen as the couple skyrocket to the heights of success and the depths of disgrace.
Nixon's Quaker childhood upbringing and tragic loss of two brothers is explored in numerous flashbacks. An interesting parallel is made between the loss of a brother to tuberculosis and the death by assassination of the two Kennedy brothers, four deaths that paved the way for Nixon's success.
Paul Sorvino does a very good job imitating the dour Henry Kissinger, while James Woods plays a smarmy H.R. Haldeman. David Hyde Pierce of tv's "Frazier" turns in a solid performance as John Dean. Bob Hoskins plays a menacing and perverted J. Edgar Hoover. It is inspired casting to have Madeline Kahn play the mouthy Martha Mitchell.
One can't help but notice Stone's preoccupation with conspiracies (he manages to work in another JFK assassination conspiracy theory into the film) as the film goes along. Washington is portrayed as a writhing mass of conspiracies, secrets and coverups.
The conspiracy stuff gets in the way of the human drama. Stone also uses so many flashbacks that it is easy to lose track of what point in time the story is supposed to be at the moment.
The most obvious thing about the film, though, is its stunning use of imagery, aided by the great cinematography of Robert Richardson ("Natural Born Killers" and "A Few Good Men") and the precise film editing of Brian Berdan and Hank Corwin. The film features subliminal image flashes, odd camera angles and rapid panning and cutting for many interesting visual effects.
Also readily apparent are the parallels between this film and "Citizen Kane" another film about a great man undone by his own inner demons. The opening shot through the White House gate and accompanying music by John Williams is very reminiscent of a similar camera shot through the gate of Xanadu, Charles Foster Kane's San Simeon-like retreat.
The parallels between the two movies continue with the fact that both Nixon and Kane achieved great power, but really wanted love. Also, though both men needed love, they seemed unable to adequately give it back to those who gave it freely to them. Both men also suffered from rejection and loss in their upbringing.
Unfortunately, "Nixon" is no "Citizen Kane." It lacks the narrative power of Orson Welles' masterpiece, primarily because of excessive use of flashbacks and a preoccupation with things other than the central human drama. It also seemed a bit long at over three hours (190 minutes, it fits on two video tapes).
Still, you have to give Stone an A for effort, but a B for the movie.
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