Saturday, Aug. 23, 2008

Oliver Stone's Nixon

By David Luhrssen
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The Republicans became the party of fear in the aftermath of World War II when a pair of returning servicemen, Joe McCarthy and Richard Nixon, ran for national office and turned politics into a battlefield. Communism was the ominous drumbeat they sounded, along with worries of nuclear war with the Soviet Union. McCarthy was the more bumptious of the two and soon fell to his own excesses. Nixon became President of the United States, only to resign in disgrace.

Oliver Stone’s Nixon, reissued on DVD along with a documentary on the controversial politician, is a superbly dramatized and visualized version of the President’s unlikely rise and calamitous fall. Some of Stone’s allusions are themselves controversial, especially his references to conspiracies behind the murder of the Kennedys, but much of the story brings the authorized version of history vividly to life.

Anthony Hopkins bares little physical resemblance to Richard Nixon but nails the man’s profound discomfort with his own existence, the herky-jerky language of a body disconnected from its soul. Hopkins’ performance crackles with the bitter resentment of a small town boy of the lower middle class with a fierce determination to rise to the pinnacle of power, punishing himself and enemies real and imagined on the way up the ladder.

The supporting cast is also superb, led by Joan Allen as Nixon’s long suffering First Lady, an appropriately sinister Bob Hoskins as J. Edgar Hoover and James Woods, Ed Harris and E.G. Marshall as the President’s men.

Nixon reveals Stone at his most skillful, deftly zigzagging across time and space, recounting decades of American history in an aural montage during the opening credits and tipping his hat to Citizen Kane with a “March of Time” newsreel covering Nixon’s early years. Remarkably, Richard Nixon is rendered with sympathy as a tragically flawed figure of Shakespearean scale.

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