Oliver Stone’s Nixon opens on a cheery government-style newsreel about the benefits of being a good employee, and by extension a good American. The film then quickly cuts through this bullshit of positive propaganda to present its own negative kind, its Oliver Stone kind: a smoky back room full of creased-faced men in cheap suits, drinking heavily, preparing for a burglary. These are the infamous Plumbers, the team of White House staffers and ex-CIA agents who burglarized the offices of the Democratic Party at the Watergate Hotel, among other places, at the behest of John Ehrlichman, Richard Nixon’s close confidant and counsel on Domestic Affairs. The Plumbers’ bungling of their Watergate op will, in this movie as in real life, bring Nixon down, but only in the most obvious of ways. To Oliver Stone, a director who, in his day (the mid-1990s, when this film was released), enjoyed about as much power and attention as any in history, Nixon was truly brought down by himself. The feint with which Stone opens his film—the newsreel’s veil of anodyne patriotism lifted to reveal the scum of hired hands it masks—is just a dramatic way for Stone to set up a second rug-pull: his three-hour film ostensibly about government corruption is in fact an epic character study of one of history’s great failed rulers.

Nixon (a tense, sweaty Anthony Hopkins) is introduced in the sad light where Stone will relegate him for most of the film. After smacking us upside the head with corruption via the Plumbers, Stone charges into to the real opening of Nixon, a long credits montage that eventually discovers the disgraced leader wallowing in the defeated final days of his presidency. Set to a bellowing John Williams score, Stone follows a black limousine through the dark, rainy streets of Washington, D.C. and onto the grounds of the White House, which his camera approaches with the cautious awe of a crusader finally reaching the gates of Jerusalem (the House itself it shot like a haunted mansion from a Universal horror film). Out of the limo marches Alexander Haig (Powers Boothe), Nixon’s second chief of staff and first national security advisor, to deliver a cache of secret tape recordings to the President, whom he finds sequestered in a small room, listening to opera, staring into a roaring fire, drinking bourbon, making allusions to suicide.

As this and virtually every Stone-created envisioning of Nixon will make clear, the director seems loath to allow him much of the will and fortitude that are surely in any man savvy enough to steer a political career all the way to the Presidency. Anthony Hopkins, an actor with talent enough for any challenge, plays Nixon as a man at the mercy of his weaknesses—the crushing guilt instilled in him by his severely Quaker mother (Mary Steenburgen), seen in John Ford-ian black and white flashbacks to Nixon’s childhood in Whittier, California; the rampant paranoia fueled in him by the innumerable enemies he’d made in the 1940s and ‘50s as first an anti-Communist senator and then a hawkish vice president to Eisenhower.

In no uncertain (cinematic) terms, Stone treats Nixon’s presidency as the American version of the Fall of Rome: cloaked in secrecy and shadow, the White House festering with competing ambitions, waning loyalties and inter-nested cliques of plotters and spies, all swirling around Hopkins’ Nixon, who mumbles, fidgets, rants and weeps his way through his reign of paranoia and corruption.

I first saw Nixon when I was 11, and while I had none of the historical background necessary to understand it, I remember feeling that it must somehow have been a kind of defining portrait of something important and American. Stone easily enough conveys the feeling of importance with his virtuoso editing, his sly intercutting of historical events into conversations, his dramatic and often canted framing, and his reliance on great character actors. My feeling now, re-watching this gargantuan, structurally labyrinthine film, is that Oliver Stone, at least at the height of his powers, saw himself as a sort of cinematic Shakespeare for the 20th century.

As he’d done with the earlier JFK and would do with the later W., Stone seems to have been aiming to be the creator of the great history plays of his era. He has always been a primary writer on his films, and has gone so far as to say that he considers writing to be his chief occupation. His chief obsession (leaving aside his opportunistic violence-media diatribe, Natural Born Killers) is the depths of human weakness in American politics post-WWII. That’s a hefty subject, and stylistically Stone has always been a director with the visual flare for the dramatic to match his ambitions. Nixon seems to me to be best viewed as an attempt at a 20th century Richard III or even Macbeth.

Film critic David Thomson wrote that this film had one of the greatest supporting casts in film history (Booth, J.T. Walsh as Ehrlichman, Joan Allen as the first lady, James Woods as initial White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman, and so on) but that, ironically, its central actor was its greatest flaw. Not because Hopkins didn’t do a good enough Nixon, but simply because for an entire generation Nixon’s face was so public that it became a kind of shorthand for the government, and later for corruption, and so for members of that same generation to watch this film presents them with the problem of seeing only Anthony Hopkins and never Richard Nixon.

That assessment presents a good question 20 years after Nixon’s release: can a generation not raised on Nixon’s face—most of whom, like me, were still little kids when Nixon died, at 81—now believe one of the world’s great actors playing a man whose political legacy has been largely diluted? After the War on Terror and plenty of new government boogeymen having taken his place? The answer is still no, not because we can’t forget the real Nixon, but because we can’t buy Oliver Stone as the modern day cinematic Shakespeare he once convinced a lot of people he was. History has made it clear that Stone painted in broad strokes, not the psychological chiaroscuros of the Bard. If anyone associated with Nixon was able to define an era the way Shakespeare did, it was Nixon himself. Stone was once allowed to offer his interpretation, but he was never playing on the main stage.

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