"Can you imagine what this man would have been had he ever been loved?"
As if his film 'JFK' and his outspoken views involving the (sometimes outlandish) conspiracy theories about the Kennedy assassination didn't generate enough of a reactionary firestorm against him, in 1995 Oliver Stone leapt into the flames once again with his epic Presidential bio-pic 'Nixon'. Yes, the most politically controversial Lefty filmmaker in Hollywood made a movie about the most politically controversial Republican president of the 20th Century. Say what you will about him, the director isn't timid. Nor is he predictable. Perhaps the most shocking and audacious thing about the film is that it didn't turn out to be the hatchet-job diatribe that everyone expected. If anything, the movie is downright sympathetic toward Richard Milhous Nixon and his fall from grace.
Anthony Hopkins takes on the challenge of portraying a man endlessly ridiculed and parodied over the years without resorting to stock caricature. He and Stone avoided the temptation of a prosthetic nose or jowl makeup, instead drawing the man's essence from the inside out. It is a truly remarkable performance that captures Nixon's demeanor and mannerisms, his slouch and limp and stilted gestures, without seeming overly mannered or broadly exaggerated. Hopkins shows us the man's obvious discomfort in his own skin, and allows us a look into his soul.
Backing Hopkins up is a stellar cast, each doing equally impressive work recreating the iconic personalities of the era: Joan Allen as First Lady Pat Nixon, James Woods as H.R. Haldeman, Powers Boothe as Alexander Haig, David Hyde Pierce as John Dean, Ed Harris as E. Edward Hunt, Bob Hoskins as J. Edgar Hoover, and countless others. Paul Sorvino delivers a dead-on impersonation of Henry Kissinger that nearly steals the show.
Using a typical Oliver Stone-ian jumbled chronology that continually jumps backwards and forwards through time, the film charts Nixon's life from a young boy raised dirt-poor by a disapproving, crazy-religious mother, though his college years, his dating of eventual wife Pat, his narrow defeat by Kennedy in 1960 and subsequent failure to win the governorship of California in 1962, to his two-term Presidency, and of course the Watergate scandal and resignation in disgrace. Mixed in as well are the country's troubles in Vietnam, the Kent State massacre, and Nixon's political breakthrough in China. All of these events are told from Nixon's point of view, and so the film doesn't dwell on details that Nixon actively tried to avoid. This isn't 'All the President's Men' laying out a case for impeachment. The specifics of the Watergate break-in are skimmed over; the Pentagon Papers are brought up but never explained; Woodward and Bernstein are only fleetingly mentioned and never seen. This is Nixon's view of the time period, filtered through his own distorted perspective.
Even with all this going on and a running time over three hours, the movie never touches upon Nixon's time in the military, his eight years as Vice President under Eisenhower, or his later reinvention as a respected elder statesman. So rich and fascinating was Richard Nixon's life that no single movie could possibly contain it.
Oliver Stone sees Nixon as a Shakespearian tragic figure undone by the fatal flaws in his character. As such, his life makes fertile ground for drama, which Stone handles with surprising empathy and restraint. Certainly, the focus of the film is the great downfall and its causes: Nixon's paranoia and persecution complex, his inclination to corruption, his steadfast refusal to admit his mistakes or apologize for them. But Stone also acknowledges Nixon's achievements and the genuine bits of greatness within the man that were so unfortunately overwhelmed by the defects of his personality. Even so, Stone's detractors will undoubtedly find plenty to despise about the movie. The film opens with a disclaimer that certain events have been condensed, consolidated, and frequently hypothesized. Above all else, Nixon was a secretive man who took the answers to many of his mysteries with him to the grave, leaving the rest of us no choice but to speculate. And speculate Stone does, which at times entails his own penchant for paranoia and conspiracy theories that are not always supported by the available facts. This is drama, it must be remembered, not a history lesson. In drama, artistic license with the facts is occasionally necessary to get to a greater truth, as anyone who has ever read one of Shakespeare's historical tragedies will understand.
More than just a biography of the major events in the man's life, 'Nixon' is also a surreal, impressionistic depiction of the thoughts and feelings running through his mind. Stone employs many of the same directorial techniques he developed in 'JFK', such as his use of mixed-media and so-called "vertical editing" that allows the story to follow an emotional trajectory rather than a chronological one. Love or hate his political views, at his best Oliver Stone is indisputably an innovator and master of the filmmaking form.
I would argue that 'Nixon' is among Stone's best. The theatrical cut of the film ran just over three hours, and this extended Director's Cut adds nearly a half hour more. Yet the picture never feels padded or dull. There is not a single moment I can imagine cutting. The story is engrossing from start to finish, the performances all first-rate, and Stone's direction at the top of his game. Whether it is precisely historically accurate or not, 'Nixon' is a terrific piece of filmmaking.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Nixon' comes to Blu-ray from Hollywood Pictures Home Entertainment (a division of Buena Vista Home Entertainment) as a 2-disc Election Year Edition. Both discs in the set are Java-enabled (for what purpose I can't determine) and slow to load in a standalone Blu-ray player. Disc 1 opens with four annoying promos and trailers before the main menu.
As they previously had with both 'JFK' and 'Natural Born Killers', Stone and his cinematographer Robert Richardson shot 'Nixon' in a variety of film stocks and media formats. The movie mixes 35mm, 16mm, 8mm, analog video, stock footage, and historical TV recordings. Even shot-to-shot within individual scenes, the picture will jump from color to black & white, or from razor sharp to soft-focus and back again. Grain structure is all over the map, some shots exhibiting crystalline clarity and others overwhelmed by heavy grain. The color footage varies from warm and natural to desaturated sepia to almost cartoonishly oversaturated depending on the needs of the scene. It's a stylistic technique meant to evoke a schizophrenic frame of mind, and it works brilliantly. This does however mean that there's little consistency in the overall appearance of the movie, but that's intentional and not something I would hold against the video transfer.
Even with that in mind, the Blu-ray's 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer (properly presented in the movie's original 2.40:1 theatrical aspect ratio) is a little schizophrenic itself. While Richardson favors contrasty photography with deep blacks and blown out whites, shadow detail in dark parts of the video image frequently appears too crushed. The picture has selected moments of truly exceptional detail, but is a little soft on the whole. The pasty facial features in some scenes look to suffer from excessive Noise Reduction. Edge ringing also intrudes from time to time, sometimes minor and other times quite thick and distracting. Such digital artifacts don't affect every scene, but stand out often enough to be bothersome.
Nevertheless, 'Nixon' is a very long movie, and the Blu-ray looks pretty good for the majority of its running time. If not perfect, it has a largely pleasing film-like appearance that should satisfy all but the pickiest of viewers.
The English language soundtrack is offered in either standard Dolby Digital 5.1 or uncompressed PCM 5.1 formats. This is a very quiet movie, with an atypically subdued score by John Williams and numerous secret meetings conducted in hushed whispers. Dialogue remains intelligible no matter the setting. Surround and low-end activity are subtly employed, only unleashed in a truly aggressive manner during the flashes to Vietnam or the roar of the political convention crowds. The contrast makes those scenes all the more startling. The PCM track has excellent fidelity in its music, dialogue, and sound effects. Although this isn't the type of disc one pulls off the shelf to demo their expensive surround sound system, the Blu-ray reproduces the movie's audio mix cleanly and faithfully.
The Blu-ray shares all of its bonus features with the comparable Election Year Edition DVD set being released simultaneously. The majority of supplements were originally seen on the older Collector's Edition DVD as well.
The commentaries are found on Disc 1 with the movie. The remaining features are all located on Disc 2.
One of Oliver Stone's least heralded works (it was a box office bomb at the time of release), 'Nixon' is an excellent movie that tells the fascinating (mostly true) story of an American enigma. The Blu-ray has strong picture and sound, and some fairly interesting bonus features. Recommended.