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Nixon

Buena Vista Home Video

Starring Anthony Hopkins and Joan Allen

Written by Oliver Stone and Robert Scheer
Directed by Oliver Stone


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Review by D. K. Holm                    


After all these years, does anyone still care about Oliver Stone's Nixon? At the time, the media pulled out every weapon it had. They couldn't stand the fact that the outspoken Stone — who had tried to refute the Warren Report in one movie and re-fight the Vietnam war in several others — would seek to chronicle the life of the disgraced president. But Stone resisted being bullied. He appeared on television shows such as PBS's Charlie Rose (an encounter added to this two-disc set) to calmly defend his film, his methods, and his politics. He sent out collaborator Robert Scheer, a Los Angeles Times columnist, to discuss the film on morning television, only to have a bloated, smug Dan Rather (who seems to claim personal ownership of both Nixon's fall and redemption) trot out the established arguments against Nixon. These intellectual gangbangers are tireless in defense of their agreed upon notion of history.

But the shunning seems to have worked. The $50 million Nixon grossed just $13 million, while one of its competitors at the time, the boring anti-male diatribe Waiting to Exhale, made $32 million. It may very well be that Americans prefer to weepily identify with suffering women rather than take a serious look at recent history, or that youngsters, who comprise most of the moviegoers, have neither heard nor want to know about the 37th president, who resigned in 1974, the year the oldest of them were born.

Thus the kids probably have little interest in a movie that takes us inside Nixon's mind, as he listens to the famous Watergate tapes in a small sitting room with the fireplace blazing and the air conditioner on, popping pills and guzzling booze. Nixon, in an effective theoretical performance by Anthony Hopkins, leaps in his mind through the years, to his childhood (his mother is played sensitively by Mary Steenburgen), to his 1960 presidentail race against John F. Kennedy, to his second successful race for the presidency in 1968, and through the whole Watergate affair that culminates in his resignation. With a large cast (including Joan Allen as Pat Nixon, James Woods as H.R. Halderman, and Paul Sorvino as Henry Kissinger) and a running-time of three-and-a-half hours Nixon is epical and internal at the same time, capturing the scope of history and its effect on the man who was both history's agent and victim.

It's a fascinating film, and most movie reviewers resisted the charge led by the editorialists who attacked it at the time. Reviewers offered qualified praise, written under the assumption that Stone, as a dramatist, has a right to speculate out loud about the Nixon presidency. Most viewers are aware that Stone offers us a Nixon, while their brethren on the editorial pages and in the news sections have been huddled around the flame of their one Nixon, the only one, apparently, permitted to exist in the media.

The most shameful aspect of the wholesale attack on Stone was the media's rewriting of even more recent history. Performing the very act they accused Stone of committing, editorialists pretended that JFK was a flop (it was successful) and filled with nothing but lies (yet the source material for the film ranged from declassified CIA documents to National Security Action Memoranda and House Select Committee on Assassinations). One journalist even noted that because Stone had received such a drubbing over JFK, he was forced to release an annotated screenplay of Nixon (Applause Books, 568 pages, $14.95, ISBN 0.7868.8157.7) to prove its contentions — the writer apparently forgetting that Stone in fact did issue an annotated script for JFK as well.

What did all these people fear? What is it about Stone that leads to such overkill? Obviously if the media truly believe that Stone is wrong or careless with the facts that's one thing. But Stone shows restraint in ignoring some of the more interesting theories about Watergate, such as Len Colodny and Robert Gettlin's plausibly iterated theory in Silent Coup, claiming that Watergate was a scheme by John Dean to protect his wife's exposure as a prostitute, a scheme that grew disastrously out of hand.

But Stone has aligned himself with some outré characters, mainly J. Fletcher Prouty, a former intelligence agent who has promoted the "secret team" theory of big government, and who has contributed to the Liberty Lobby and its publication The Spotlight (a newspaper that Watergate burglar E. Howard Hunt sued when it accused him of being in Dallas on the day of the JFK assassination). Could it be that Stone tainted himself by association with Prouty, and that both the right and left elements in the mainstream media determined that Stone was really a crackpot, and an easy target for censure?

The fact of the matter is that Stone is not a crackpot in the conventional sense. One of the few filmmakers in Hollywood who allows himself to be seen thinking in public, he has amassed a body of work over the years whose complexion changes with each new addition. And JFK led to the release of many sealed Kennedy assassination documents.

Stone has suffered from comparisons to Stanley Kramer, the softly liberal director and producer of such works of easy protest as The Defiant Ones and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (the virtually illiterate Quentin Tarantino has called him the "Stanley Kramer of our generation"). But of course, Stone isn't the equivalent of Kramer. He has distinct visual and editing styles that make him one of the most interesting of all major Hollywood directors. He resists the public's quest for easy answers and pleasant subjects, delightful romances, and brainless actioners. Stone is often accused of courting controversy. Of course, as a Hollywood figure, he will always be suspected of exploiting events for publicity. But regardless, he is also a director who wants to discuss important things, and he has the rare clout to do it.

In Nixon, Stone attempts to come to terms with one of the figures "behind" the Vietnam war. Though Stone probably hated Nixon when he was decompressing from his time in Vietnam, today his treatment of Nixon is sympathetic. It may not be the Nixon whom his admirers or Nixon himself might welcome, but the film is an engaging act of sympathy.

This two-disc DVD release from Buena Vista, an included in the Oliver Stone Collection, comes with the film on one disc, and on the other deleted or expanded scenes with optional introductions by Stone, and an appearance by Stone on the Charlie Rose Show. Among the deleted scenes is one with Sam Waterston as Richard Helms. The transfer on this single-sided, dual-layered set is a solid anamorphic version of the 2.35:1 image, with audio in Dolby Digital 5.1, in English and French. Stone also provides an audio commentary, and cast and crew talent and awards files are included as well.

— D. K. Holm



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