I hail from Nixon country.
That’s Whitter, California, to be exact, the stomping grounds of our 37th President, Richard Milhouse Nixon. In my hometown, Nixon’s legacy casts a large but fractured shadow: half-favorite son, half-greatest shame. It’s that dichotomy that makes the tragedy of Nixon—and indeed, it is a tragedy—so endlessly fascinating, most of all to filmmakers. The canon of Nixon cinema runs deep to include films great (All the President’s Men, Secret Honor, Dick), terrible (The Butler, Nixon & Elvis) and in-between (Frost/Nixon).
It’s only fitting that among these looms one grand, sprawling biopic: Oliver Stone’s Nixon, released a quarter of a century ago this December. However, that film—which initially divided audiences and critics but has since gone on to be considered one of Stone’s best efforts—is really only partly about Richard Nixon. As with many of Stone’s films, its true subject is “The Beast”: the unholy and unwieldy alliance of dark powers under which all of us—paupers and Presidents alike—are but gristle for the mill.
In the lead up to Nixon’s release, which came only a year after its namesake had passed away, Stone’s film was expected to be as excoriation of the man for his various crimes and misdeeds (both confirmed and speculative), one that followed in the footsteps of his supremely controversial film of four years earlier, the phantasmagoric conspiracy thriller JFK. Indeed, outcries from several of Nixon’s family members, the Nixon Presidential Library, former CIA Director Richard Helms, and even the daughter of Walt Disney helped to shape a narrative around the film that no doubt led to its bombing at the box office.
But as is so often the case with controversial films, that outrage was based mostly on speculation and prejudice. For while Stone’s film does indeed showcase many of Nixon’s abuses of power—namely his expansion of the war in Southeast Asia and masterminding the Watergate break-in—while engaging in no small bit of conspiracy mongering (though less than JFK does), it is a far more empathetic, even sympathetic, portrayal of the man and his legacy. Stone, a Vietnam vet and (at the time) radical liberal with every reason to hold a grudge, could very easily have cast Nixon as a grotesque archvillain in the tradition of Macbeth and Richard the III. But while those are definitely touchpoints, he presents Nixon as closer to Lear, or, to move away from the work of Shakespeare, Charles Foster Kane. Like those figures of fallen power, his Nixon is a man who got it all, only to lose it all, and by the end of the film we truly feel for him.
To this end, Stone is helped greatly by his cast, undoubtedly the best he ever assembled. Stone’s biopics and historical epics can often suffer Saturday Night Live-itis, what with all the A-list actors hamming it up as famous political figures with the help of noticeable prosthetics. Not so here: the film is anchored by an excellent Anthony Hopkins, who, while never really looking or sounding much like the real Nixon, nonetheless inhabits him on a deeper level, brilliantly bringing forth the lonely, shabby, human soul that lay beneath the various tics we all know so well (the arm-crossing, hunching, sweating, muttering and cursing). Just as good is co-lead Joan Allen, who finds deep pathos in “Plastic” Pat Nixon. Movies about presidents often betray a cloying (and usually unearned) need to present First Ladies as the moral center of their story, and while Stone definitely takes this route, he undercuts it by showing the way Pat Nixon’s failure to sway her husband towards right curdles and sours her own soul.
Beyond the two leads, the film is lousy with a who’s-who of ‘90s-era MVPS killing it as Nixon’s various hatchet men, bagmen, hangers on and adversaries: James Woods, Ed Harris, J.T. Walsh, Powers Booth, David Paymer, Kevin Dunn, Dan Hedaya, David Hyde Pierce, Fyvush Finkel, Larry Hagman, Saul Rubinek, E.G. Marshall and more. Particularly inspired are the casting coups of Paul Sorvino as Henry Kissinger, Bob Hoskins as J. Edgar Hoover, Madeline Kahn as Martha Mitchell, and, in some of the best scenes unfortunately cut out of the film, Sam Waterson as a truly satanic Helms.
But it’s Hopkins’ show, with he and Stone zeroing in on Nixon’s great loneliness and self-doubt, both of which were informed by the trauma of watching his two brothers die young. Stone also understands that what makes Nixon far more sympathetic a figure than the likes of, say, Helms or Hoover (or, god help us, Ronald Reagan or Donald Trump), is that he was a legitimate underdog for his entire life: a poor kid from nowhere (I really get a kick out of the way Whittier is used as shorthand for his disreputable roots throughout the film) who rose to the seat of ultimate power without the money, education or looks of those who considered themselves his betters (foremost amongst them, “those damned Kennedys”).
Far from using Nixon’s underdog status to excuse the choices he made, Stone recognizes it’s what fed his lifelong resentment, which ultimately morphed into an all-encompassing paranoia and remorselessness and led to his grand downfall in the wake of the Watergate scandal and revelations about his secret Oval Office recordings. The film is framed by Nixon’s long, dark night of the soul on August 7th, when he stalked the Lincoln bedroom drunk, crying, talking to ghosts, forcing Kissinger to pray with him and begging for forgiveness. So even though Stone ends on a somewhat incongruous note of resilience and optimism by way of his farewell address to the nation, the image of Nixon that we’re left with is that of a completely broken man adrift in a spiritual and moral prison of his own making.
Importantly though, while Stone shows Nixon as the prime architect of his personal downfall, he is, in the end, merely a sacrificial lamb. For Oliver Stone’s Nixon very clearly exists in the same universe as Oliver Stone’s JFK. Beyond the pall that the Kennedy assassinations cast over the entire film (with the lead up to that fateful moment in Dallas playing out to the same music cue that opens Stone’s earlier film), both employ a thick hallucinatory ambience that transports occasionally gives opens windows into the terrifying liminal zone that exists beyond or everyday reality, a place where eternal forces of darkness hold sway over our fates.
It’s here that Nixon recalls Macbeth the most, having his fate read to him by a coven of witches (here, a group of shady businessmen) in a mist-filled swamp (or in this case, a smoke-filled back room). Because he accepts the bargain he’s dooming himself, but the fact is he was doomed regardless. Ultimately, Nixon is as much a patsy as Macbeth, or for that matter, Lee Harvey Oswald.
The most memorable scene in Nixon is a highly dramatized depiction of a real event which sees the president, accompanied by only his faithful valet Manolo Sanchez (Tony Plana), pay a late-night visit to the Lincoln Memorial to have an impromptu “rap” with young anti-war protesters, only to be cut to the quick by a 19-year-old college kid, who brings into harsh relief his utter powerlessness to end the war or bring about true change. In a few seconds, she sums up what it’s taken him decades to realize: that the system itself—“the CIA, the mafia, those Wall Street Bastards”—is an untamable wild animal, a “beast.”
Watching the film 25 years on, amidst the devastation of the Trump administration—whose downfall was no less ignominious that Nixon’s, but whose corruption is so much more egregious it makes the former’s seem almost quaint—it’s obvious that the Beast has only grown bigger, hungrier and more untamable.