If you thought Anthony Hopkins made a convincing psychopath in Silence of the Lambs, just wait until you see Nixon. Hopkins doesn't so much imitate the vile, vindictive little megalomaniac as reconstruct him from the ground up. From the browbeaten face poking out turtlelike from between hunched shoulders to the twisted, repressed hand gestures to the phony smile that seemed so magnetic to Nixon loyalists and so calculated and carnivorous to his enemies, Hopkins fashions the crowning performance of his already distinguished career. It's all there: Nixon's trademark buttless-white-man gait, the body language that seemed to sag under the weight of guilt, the arms-extended flying-V high sign, the furtive paranoiac sideways glances. Hopkins's achievement is breathtaking. Not only does the thought never cross your mind that you are watching a Welsh actor playing an American president, but after a while you start to forget what the real Tricky Dick looked like. By most accounts Nixon was a man of stunning contradictions, equally capable of profundity and profanity, at once kind and cowardly, vicious and affable, sporadically brilliant and frequently incoherent. Not since George C. Scott tackled Patton has an actor in a motion picture nailed down the essence of a major American historical figure with such pitch-perfect conviction. Hopkins's Nixon is a star-crossed leader of Shakespearean proportions -- Richard XXXVII.
And as for director/co-writer/co-producer Oliver Stone -- what better match of filmmaker and subject? Two of the all-time great manipulators of truth facing off in an epic battle. Even in death Richard Nixon tenaciously guards his tarnished legacy; as the film notes, 21 years after Nixon resigned the presidency in disgrace, less than two percent of the White House tapes recorded during his administration have been made public. The rest remain mired in a gridlock of lawsuits, and they may never see the light of scrutiny. The ability to thwart those who would disseminate his conversations could well be Nixon's final and most enduring caper.
But not having all the facts at his disposal never stopped Oliver Stone before. Surprisingly -- no, make that shockingly -- the notoriously conservative-baiting, JFK-conspiracy-spouting director exercises uncharacteristic restraint in his cinematic profile of the man most Americans of Stone's political persuasion would flat out vilify (this reviewer included). It wouldn't be accurate to call Nixon balanced, exactly, but it's far more sympathetic than one might have expected from Oliver Stone.
But is it Stone's Citizen Kane? To read most of Nixon's reviews in the mainstream media, you'd think so. Certainly Stone is at the top of his game as a director. In grainy black-and-white footage he traces the roots of Nixon's blind ambition back to his strict upbringing at the hands of a cold Quaker mother (who referred to her son as "thee") and a poor, hard-working father. Granted, that scenario might seem a little too pat even by armchair-psychoanalytic standards. But it's effective. Walk into the theater in the middle of one of these segments -- particularly the scene in which young Richard's brother Harold dies of tuberculosis -- and you'll think you've encountered a screening of The Grapes of Wrath. You almost start to feel sorry for the guy -- almost. But before you get too comfortable, Stone jerks you back into the adult Richard's twisted mindset by intercutting actual newsreel footage of Nixon's hated rival JFK, or by staging the surreal nighttime confrontation between an embattled-and-losing-it Nixon and a group of antiwar protesters at the Lincoln Memorial. The director has never demonstrated better command of his medium; put simply, he pulls out all the stops.
The disappointing thing is that for all Stone's bravura imagery, and despite the wealth of great supporting performances -- from Joan Allen's constricted, frustrated Pat Nixon to James Woods's gung-ho Machiavellian H.R. Haldeman to Madeleine Kahn's wickedly irreverent Martha Mitchell -- the film pretty much regurgitates what we already knew (or suspected) about the creepy chief executive. Granted, there's a lot to regurgitate. And Stone tries to spew it all out, from Alger Hiss and the "Checkers the cocker spaniel" speech to the bunkerlike paranoia of the final days and the boozy, hallucinatory conversations with White House paintings. It was no mean feat merely to touch all the bases of an extraordinarily turbulent three-decade political career in a cohesive three-hour (okay, three hours and ten minutes to be exact) movie. And no one will mistake the film for one of those stuffy, unimaginative docudramas. Nixon should be required viewing for those too young to fathom the magnitude of the man's personal demons and political villainy; and for those of us who lived through most of it but have forgotten a lot, it provides an excellent refresher course. Oliver Stone doesn't forget. But neither does he shed much new light on his enigmatic subject. Stone always takes it in the neck from critics who rail at his damn-the-facts flamboyance. This time out the big shock is the filmmaker's relative temperance.
Still, Nixon is Oliver Stone's finest film -- easily one of the best movies of 1995 -- and a triumph for Anthony Hopkins. It's got a little bit of Macbeth, a little bit of All the President's Men, and as much Caine Mutiny -- Hopkins's Nixon would have gotten along famously with Bogart's Captain Queeg -- as Citizen Kane. Neither those who champion the Nixon years nor those who rue them will likely leave the theater with changed minds, but at least Stone reminds us of why this humble grocer's kid from Whittier, California, proved so adept at dividing a nation he promised to unite, and so inept at evoking the popular approval for which he so desperately longed.
Get the Film Club Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.