Anthony Hopkins as Richard Nixon
Joan Allen as Pat Nixon
Paul Sorvino as Henry Kissenger
James Woods as H.R. Haldeman
Bob Hoskins as J. Edgar Hoover
David Hyde Pierce as John Dean
Mary Steenburgen as Hannah Nixon
Tom Bower as Frank Nixon
As you can probably tell from the title, this movie is about Richard Nixon, President of the United States of America and as of this post, the only one to resign from office. He is certainly one of our oddest and most interesting leaders. His public image was as a cold warrior, yet his most lasting accomplishments were diplomatic talks with the communist world. His strict, religious mother taught him discipline and integrity, though it is generally accepted among historians that Nixon’s mind was unstable and led him to commit crimes. His image in every campaign was that of a common rural man who saw left-wing Democrats as elite social engineers, but once elected, he tended to govern from the center.
Oliver Stone tries to bring Nixon to life, and to an extent, he succeeds. He shows us a Nixon who was embittered by defeat and driven increasingly paranoid. Stone is not the best journalist in my humble opinion, but he does once again prove to be one of the best at humanizing people. Unfortunately, this picture falters from its overly lenient portrayal of a man who most assuredly was a crook.
We begin during the Watergate scandal as a frustrated Nixon reflects on his life in politics. Still, those expecting a complete account of his career will be disappointed. Stone’s scope of focus begins in the 1960 debates between Nixon and John F. Kennedy with the disappointed reaction of Nixon’s campaign staff. He also loses the election but believes he was cheated in Illinois and Texas. Still, he sees a challenge as hopeless, so he lets the result stand. He does run for Governor of his home state of California just two years later, but loses again. This movie implies that Nixon’s defeats were the reason he lost his mind. The vast majority of Nixon is split between Nixon’s gradual comeback from his humiliating defeat in California to his resignation from the office of President in disgrace.
Anthony Hopkins is Tricky Dick. He doesn’t much look like the huge-headed thirty-seventh President, but who does? He’s got what probably were Nixon’s mannerisms down pat. On the other hand, Nixon had the charisma of a dusted-up rocking chair. In this, Hopkins tremendous acting skills work against him. He does a good job grumbling and otherwise trying to sound unlikable, but it’s not quite right. Hopkins is alright, but he definitely doesn’t do a first-rate job of playing this historical figure.
Thankfully, Nixon is scripted well. There are flashbacks to his childhood in which he is taught by his blue collar parents that life is rough. Unfortunately, this Nixon learns the wrong lessons from them. Instead of understanding the true value of hard work, he grows into an incredibly cynical man. So much so that he ends up losing his sense of right and wrong.
Since this is an Oliver Stone movie set partly in the 1960s, the political assassinations do play a part. Nixon has mixed feelings about JFK’s murder, saddened that it happened to President Kennedy, yet he would clearly be celebrating if it were only Jack Kennedy. J. Edgar Hoover is portrayed in this movie as a corrupt status quo guy. Dark tidings are made by the implications that he was responsible for the assassinations of Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., and exerted tremendous influence on Nixon (“I’m gonna have to remind him that he needs us a Hell of a lot more than we need him”).
As usual with these political movies, the separation of powers is largely ignored. Congress almost never comes into play. Since Nixon had an opposing Congress all the way through, this would seem to be a pretty big oversight. Fortunately, the real Nixon didn’t care all that much about domestic issues that didn’t accuse him of crimes, preferring international affairs, where Congress has less authority. So the fact that the President’s power is exaggerated, like in most movies, hurts Nixon less than it should.
The foreign issues Nixon grapples with are the communist threat, normalizing relations with China, and of course, Vietnam/Cambodia. The second escalation of the war with Vietnam, war protests against Nixon, negotiations with Mao Zedong, and the eventual withdrawal from ‘Nam are all handled well. You can almost picture that they really happened this way.
If Congress seems too small in this movie, the importance of the people who elected Nixon is accurately depicted. There is a reenactment of a real life scene in which Nixon, over the strong objections of his advisers, has a conversation with anti-war students. At first they can’t understand why Nixon does what he does if he really wants to end the war, but he seems to reach common ground with them when he basically explains that changing current policy isn’t easy and requires patience because the system tends to be invested in what works right now.
Nixon also has conversations with some conservative Texas businessmen. In 1963, they urge Nixon to take another shot at Kennedy (who’s not dead yet). Nixon basically tells them that Kennedy or whoever takes his place will be unbeatable. As President, Nixon disappoints them with environmental regulations, expanded school busing, and ending the war. Nixon basically tells them that politics requires compromise. When that doesn’t do the trick, he adds that it’s him or “pansy-poet socialist” George McGovern; “if you’re not happy with the EPA up your ass, try the IRS.” I can totally imagine Obama having a similar conversation with disenchanted Democratic donors.
With all the praise this movie is getting, you’re probably expecting a very high rating. Actually, there is one critical flaw: it’s too generous. For instance, it is true that Nixon chose to talk personally to protesters, but it was pure politics. He had no respect for the protesters or any other form of political opposition. This is why he created a recording system in the first place: he trusted no one. Stone’s attempts to make his look into the soul of Richard Milhous Nixon a sympathetic one is problematic because Nixon deserved no sympathy whatsoever. I understand that Stone probably only wanted to be understanding of a disliked man, but a lot of unpopular people are unpopular for a reason.
Despite this major flaw, I still enjoy Nixon. Generous or not, it is a both enlightening and entertaining presidential biography.
Overall: 7 out of 10