A grandstanding achievement from Oliver Stone. Nixon has the sweep and length of an all-American epic but really it’s just an incredibly in-depth character study.
I always respond to Stone’s work when he turns things up to the max and when he clearly has a personal stake in the topic. You can tell Nixon and this era in American history are obsessions for Stone and he makes sure this is his definitive statement on the subject. The film is framed around Nixon listening to his tapes one stormy night and from there jumps around in time to key moments of Nixon’s life, both professionally and emotionally. Some of the revelations are old-hat (it all starts with childhood!) while others are inspired in that classic Oliver Stone-conspiracy nut sort of way. He portrays Nixon as a man haunted by the death of Kennedy until the end of his days and suggests he may have had a hand in his killing, whether directly or in-directly is never clarified.
The central performance by Anthony Hopkins is a tour-de-force. Dialled up to eleven with the assistance of some make-up and wig work, it could easily be too much. But Hopkins brings so much to the eyes, the posture and the inner turmoil of Nixon that every minute of the 220 minute runtime is watchable if just for him being on-screen at all times. He sweats, shouts, cowers and crumbles. It is a rise and fall of a man who always felt second best. At times he is a monster, at others a very vulnerable human being. Hopkins disappears into the role completely. Not only is it the best I’ve ever seen Hopkins, it might be one of the best performances I’ve seen from any actor ever. How’s that for hyperbole? In this case, it’s justified.
There’s so much going on here. Even the supporting roles are near-dominating. Joan Allen, who plays Nixon’s wife Pat, shares many of the film’s best scenes with Hopkins. And those moments, with Nixon in a bedroom, a side-office or corner with his wife – are the moments that dig deepest into this rendition of a very real man. Stone’s Nixon is undoubtedly that and not a clean-cut biopic of the actual figure. The film’s stylisation – augmented by Robert Richardson’s ace photography – is expressionistic with deep shadows dominating large spaces. it looks like a horror movie at times. The elements play a big character in the emotional arc. I can even remember the weather in a lot of the scenes as it alway seems to mirror Nixon’s psyche at the time. The aesthetic all around is full and bold. Light dims to show us Hopkins in silhouette or images of wars and turmoil are projected onto characters. The sound design is equally busy. It’s all very Oliver Stone – so not very subtle and underplayed – but anchored on this subject, with this kind of frenzied passion behind it, the full-blooded approach works.
Nixon has been repeatedly labelled as Stone’s Citizen Kane and while that might raise expectations unfairly high, it’s certainly appropriate in regards to the film’s structure, scale and ambition. And like Kane is as American as any film I’ve seen. Nixon came and went in 1995 and even now is pointed to as the great unsung masterwork in Stone’s career. After seeing it for myself I’m inclined to agree. The running time will be intimidating, but so is the subject. Stone doesn’t try to explain Nixon as much as he tries to interpret and understand him. It is the macro next to Secret Honor‘s micro. Both films showcase definitive performances of a man who had so many different faces. They’re both effective in their own way. But in the same way Secret Honor is clearly an Altman picture, Nixon is an Oliver Stone movie and it’s one of the very best there is. His last true masterwork.