When Oliver Stone’s “Nixon” came out in 1995, it got lambasted by all sorts of people. Nixon apologists said it was a hatchet job. Anti-Nixon people said it went too easy on him. I remember seeing it and thinking that it would be almost impossible for someone who was not pretty well read about the politics of the time to understand what the hell it was about.
Watching it again on DVD, and having read an awful lot about Nixon in the ensuing years, I’ve come to appreciate it as a great movie. Anthony Hopkins as Nixon veers dangerously close to what seems to be a parody of Nixon until you actually read and watch Nixon himself, this tortured but brilliant man who managed to drag himself all the way to the White House. He was brilliantly pragmatic, appeared on a national ballot more times than any Republican had or since, and was, by today’s standards, quite progressive in a button down kind of way. Yet his record of deeds and actions is so vast as to allow friends and foes to cherrypick from his soaring achievements and shocking decisions to create an image of either one of the most effective presidents the United States has ever had, or a man who was an immoral monster with the lives of thousands on his hands.
The cast is a solid character actors picturebook, with Paul Sorvino and James Woods in particular eating up scenery as Kissinger and HR Haldeman respectively, and Joan Allen shines as Pat Nixon.
Stone can sometimes be accused to putting into a movie things which are a little too difficult to take seriously: such as when the lantern jawed Powers Boothe as General Haig suggests that the army could be used to prevent Congress impreaching Nixon. There is one scene, however, which reveals a glimpse of the ambivalence of the Nixon record. A group of ultra right wing supporters demands he implement more right wing policies, and he faces them down. When one asks “Are you threatening me, Dick?” Hopkins smiles and says “The President doesn’t threaten people, Jack. He doesn’t have to.”