How many filmmakers could make a film that borrows its structure from “Citizen Kane” (the official greatest film of all times) without making your teeth cringe? Well, Oliver Stone achieved just that. Like many of his other films, this biography of President Nixon is controversial, but you can’t deny that it’s an amazing, thought-provoking film. Stone starts from real events we have all seen on TV or somewhere and he tries to find out what really happened, what connected the dots. What pushed a man like Richard Nixon to take all these decisions? How did he interact with his people behind closed doors? It’s hard to know how much of these “hypothesized” events are true, but I don’t think this is the point. This is a remarkable movie no matter how true it is. It starts as Nixon listens painfully to those infamous White House tapes incriminating him, and gradually, Stone deconstructs his life to figure out how he got there.
Like Kane, Nixon was a rather poor kid who was propelled to the highest ranks of power and then blew it, maybe because of his own tendency to self destruction. He lost his two brothers to tuberculosis when he was young. His father was a strict man who believed life was about struggling till the last minute. His mother, a Quaker, might have had even higher standards to which Nixon couldn’t dream of reaching. It’s as is, right from the start, he wouldn’t ever be able to plain enjoy a victory. He was bound to be a nervous, pessimist man. One of the themes that runs through the film is how Nixon always felt like the American people hated him, and how he envied the love they had for JFK, even after he was assassinated. He never was a popular leader to the media, the student movements and the liberals, even though he ended the Vietnam war, opened up China and signed treaties with Russia.
Unfortunately for him, most remember him for the Watergate scandal, a third-rate espionage affair that escalated to stellar proportions because of all the covering-up. It seems to be because beneath this not that big a crime lied facts compromising a lot of people, including Nixon himself. The White House tapes give us an insight into this, but there’s still that mysterious 18 minute gap, which Stone uses as Nixon’s Rosebud, a missing puzzle piece that would have something to do with the assassination attempt on Castro, Bay of Pigs and maybe even the murder of Kennedy. But as politically and historically interesting as the film is, it’s mostly the story of the man, Richard Nixon, who seemed to follow each victory with a defeat.
Nixon is brilliantly portrayed by Anthony Hopkins, who goes for the essence of the man instead of trying to do an impersonation. Hopkins conveys Nixon’s constant awkwardness and the sense of despair that accompanied him. Stone also got more great performances from the supporting cast, which includes the superb Joan Allen as the strong-willed Pat Nixon, Paul Sorvino as the intelligent yet befuddled Henry Kissinger, as well as James Woods, Powers Boothe and the late J.T. Walsh as Nixon’s take-no-shit counselors. “Nixon” is truly a great film, skillfully crafted by Oliver Stone. Despite the general structure borrowed from “Citizen Kane”, Stone meshes together flashbacks, newsreels, black&white and color as well as different types of film, therefore creating a very complex piece. He turns Nixon’s life into a real modern tragedy.