“When they look at you, they see what they want to be. When they look at me, they see what they are.” — Richard Nixon (Anthony Hopkins)
Despite its director’s leftist leanings, Oliver Stone’s 1995 biopic / political thriller hybrid Nixon refuses to paint our 37th president as a demon.
Political and popular culture desperately needs to render his legacy as that of a political boogeyman, an irredeemable presidential terrorist. That narrative helps reinforce the continued seeds of unrest, distrust, and resentment in our political system. While Richard Milhous Nixon had several massive faults as president, I am not here to debate his legacy, an inflammatory legacy that still inspires great art. Nixon’s controversial tenure in the White House and the Watergate scandal that ended it are typically represented in broad strokes of evil. The delicate art of a balanced, unbiased take seems lost in modern storytelling with few attempting to understand the rot at the root. Surprisingly, Oliver Stone made the bold choice to explore the psychology behind Richard Nixon and his tragic downfall, and his all-sides-considered storytelling makes his film great.
And as such, I come to praise Oliver Stone’s Nixon, not to bury it.
As a film, Nixon stands on its own as a brilliant exploration of the intersection between politics and a man’s damaged psyche. A cause for celebration, it regards the man not as the epitome of political evil but as someone with deep-seated convictions and the will to do right by his country. Stone’s film considers the life of Nixon in the colors of a Shakespearean tragedy, a spectacular fall from grace story where the real culprit is the untamable political machine, a beast as described in the film. As such, the complex man at the center becomes undone by his cancerous insecurities. Stone paints a complex portrait of a man that cannot be rendered in standard black or white thematics. Nixon lived in the gray areas of humanity, and the film captures that brilliantly by examining his darkest impulses and hypothesizing their beginnings.
Nixon’s original trailer stands out as one that completely captured the exact soul of the film. It blends Stone’s key powerhouse thematic moments with the shock and awe of an incredible John Williams score. That candor perhaps ultimately turned audiences off of the film (it was a box-office flop). Either audiences chose not to engage with the character in a sympathetic way or they feared the worst from the man who played loose with the facts in JFK.
There are likely multiple reasons why the film failed, most of them, I suspect, stemming from the film’s treatment of its central figure. Stone fashioned a multi-faceted, complex, and unbiased take on the man who in many circles existed as one of America’s greatest monsters. From the trailer’s opening lines (“His roots were humble…”), audiences likely decided to decline their invitations to Stone’s controversial vision. Maybe they weren’t ready to see Nixon as the child of a deeply religious woman given to personal sacrifice in the name of God.
“You will find thy peace at the center, Richard. Strength in this life. Happiness in the next.” — Hannah Nixon (Mary Steenburgen)
I remember interning at a newspaper when Nixon died in 1994. My mentor at the time was a former flower child with liberal persuasions, and I still remember his prolific vitriol at the sight of the American flag flying at half staff to mark Nixon’s death. He was the kind of person who would have gone to the movies to see the latest Oliver Stone film, but not this sympathetic version of history. I suspect he was not alone.
Yet, Stone’s vision of Richard Nixon is specifically why I find the film so compelling.
Simplistic, by-the-numbers portrayals of complex people have never interested me. True art engages audiences and asks them to relate to something other than their insular lived experiences. I would never flatly dismiss Nixon as an evil person, although he did many terrible, damaging things. To me, his story as written by Stone fascinates because it asks us to feel sympathy for someone condemned in the public eye. As with the great tragic Shakespearean anti-heroes, Stone’s Nixon thrusts himself into a world that he cannot control. He surrounds himself with those he cannot trust, making it impossible for him to overcome the personal insecurities that will ultimately drive him into a ruined reputation.
Anthony Hopkins, perhaps a controversial choice to play Nixon as he’d recently won an Oscar for playing an actual cannibal, gives what I consider one of his very best performances here. Physically, he looks nothing like Richard Nixon. Yet, he captures Nixon’s embarrassed posture, the ever-slouching hunchback who navigates the corridors of the White House as if he wasn’t entirely convinced he truly belonged. By the end of the film, at times you can almost glimpse the man himself as Hopkins rages against the political walls closing in around him. It’s an astoundingly complex performance from one of our very best actors that dances a fine line between cartoonish and compelling. For me, it’s the ever-present fear and pain in Hopkins’s eyes that ultimately sells it. This may not have been the real Richard Nixon, but I cannot write off Hopkins’s Nixon as irredeemable evil.
Aside from excavating Nixon’s personal insecurities, Stone also creates a Shakespearean cast of supporting characters out of those who circled the president during the Watergate era. James Woods (H.R. Haldeman), J.T. Walsh (John Ehrlichman), Paul Sorvino (Henry Kissinger), Powers Boothe (Alexander Haig), E.G. Marshall (John Mitchell), David Hyde Pierce (John Dean), and many, many more create something of a rogues’ gallery of Nixon’s closest confidants and likely biggest liabilities. But the most revelatory moment in the film comes from a brief cameo by Dallas star Larry Hagman as composite character “Jack Jones,” a Texas millionaire with seemingly sinister political connections. His tête-à-tête with Hopkins serves up one of the film’s best moments.
Jones: “I think, Mr. President, you’re forgetting who put you where you are.”
Nixon: “The American people put me where I am.”
Jones: “Really? Well, that can be changed.”
These moments resonate less as Watergate conspiracy theories and more as one of Nixon’s most powerful themes: the political beast. Hopkins as Nixon sells his soul for political gain. His wife Pat (the brilliant Joan Allen) calls him out on it throughout the film, but he dismisses her warnings continuously. One particularly great scene between the two actors imagines a tense dinner where Pat, the film’s “truth teller,” challenges her husband’s political faults.
“When do the rest of us stop paying off your debts,” she challenges.
Flustered and incapable of rebuttal, Nixon childishly rings a dinner bell to drown out the truth, to drown out his conscience. As the White House butler approaches, he coldly remarks, “Mrs. Nixon’s finished.” It’s a beautiful, shocking moment. Here, he negates Pat’s withering looks through decorum, but later, he’s haunted by his mother’s ghost, the inescapable conscience.
I suspect Hopkins’s Nixon believes no one truly understands his entrapment. We know this thanks to one scene filmed in front of the Lincoln Memorial where Nixon and a group of college-aged protestors engage in political discourse. A young woman peppers him with direct questions and realizes that even Nixon, as President of the United States, cannot stop the political beast, embodied by the terrible Vietnam War. She is silenced by her own horrific revelation, as is the audience.
When Nixon is escorted away from the encounter, he excitedly marvels at her intuitiveness. Is it relief he expresses that someone has finally understood his plight?
“She got it, Bob. A 19-year-old college kid. She understood something that’s taken me 25 years in politics to understand. The CIA. The Mafia. Those Wall Street bastards. The beast. A 19-year-old kid. She called it a wild animal.” — Richard Nixon (Anthony Hopkins)
It’s one of the best moments in a series of unforgettable sequences that construct Stone’s overall Shakespearean narrative. We cannot simply regard Richard Nixon as evil. He is a product of the political machine. His ambition and desperation to be as loved and as admired as John F. Kennedy irreversibly drive him to the darkest of destinations. He needs to be loved, loved more than JFK. To achieve that, he feeds the political beast for advancement, to prove his worth. But he staggers toward the inevitable decline, and we as a country suffered.
“Death paved the way, didn’t it? Vietnam. The Kennedys. Cleared a path through the wilderness just for me.” — Richard Nixon (Anthony Hopkins)
I celebrate Nixon because it unexpectedly gives us a nuanced portrait of a man many consider to be the boogeyman himself. We tend to create representations of evil to keep ourselves in check through fear. The fear of failure. The fear of rejection. The fear of monsters lurking around the corner. The thing under the bed that lies in wait. America refashioned Richard Nixon in this light, and his aftermath marked the beginnings of a deep political and cultural schism that grows even wider today. Yet, few people are inherently evil. People are defined in shades of gray, and Stone explores those shades in his vision of who Richard Nixon may have been. A shrew politician? Yes. A loving husband and father? Of course. A deeply flawed man? Definitely.
But he refuses to see Nixon as an evil man. Perhaps that’s why the film failed to resonate with audiences.
It failed to deliver what they craved.