NIXON - Blu-ray review

Nixon boasts a strong cast, dialogue that mostly rings true, and a profile of a man that disappointed himself long before he did his country.

James Plath's picture

When Richard Nixon lost the California governor's race two short years after John F. Kennedy "stole" the presidential election from him in 1960, a fed-up Nixon told the press he was bowing out of politics altogether, quipping "You won't have Nixon to kick around anymore." But of course. once you're a historical figure you're never completely out of the picture, and Nixon gets kicked around plenty in this expansive 1995 biopic from Oliver Stone, coming across as a neurotic who can't remember things, always has a drink in hand, and can't seem to keep his upper lip from perspiring. But Stone also endeavors to show the human side of Nixon, a side for which even Nixon-haters would be hard-pressed not to feel some sort of sympathy, or even empathy.

You know two things going into an Oliver Stone movie: it's not going to be short, and it won't bear the mark of a director's light touch. That continues here. In one of the bonus features, Stone remarks that with "Nixon" he was trying to create an American epic, though it's really more of a Shakespearian tragedy. Stone never strays very far from the basic question of what constitutes greatness, and the fact that Nixon could have been great if not for his own tragic flaws. "Character is destiny," Stone says, "and so Nixon ended up on the ash heap of history." For a man whose left-leaning politics are well known (and documented), Stone perhaps gives a hint of why he also decided to make a film about "W." (now in post-production), which he said he wanted to release before George W. Bush left office. In remarks that feel like an earnest plea for unity, Stone says, in essence, that he wanted to focus on the human element of Nixon because we're all human and we all have the same capacity for greatness . . . and disappointment. "I hope that we get beyond dogma and beyond ideology," a passionate Stone says. And one can guess that maybe this is his way of saying this is where a polarized country can meet in the middle: at the intersection of our common humanity. Just as he tried to be fair to Nixon, he'll do the same with "W." --if "fair" means trying to evoke sympathy for a subject whose actions and character don't naturally invoke such a response.

"Nixon" is a sprawling film which begins with the 1972 Watergate break-in that started his whole unraveling, and continues (counting sequences that run concurrently with the end credits) three hours and 27 minutes long. The box of this "Election Year Edition" says that this is the "extended director's cut--28 minutes added." But the math doesn't add up. The theatrical and 1999 DVD releases were 191 minutes, and the 2002 collector's edition/director's cut was 212. The box says this is 213 minutes, but of course that makes you wonder if anything was added, and since 21 minutes is not 28, but only an extra minute was added, what happened to the missing seven minutes of "extended director's cut"? One can only imagine that they're in the same box with those missing 18 and a half minutes of missing tapes from Nixon's oval office recordings. All of which is to say that I couldn't tell the difference between this version and the previous director's cut.

Then again, the narrative jumps around so much that it's hard to comprehend all of what is happening, even for people who read about Watergate and Nixon's unraveling as it was happening. Familiar names pop up--like H.R. Haldeman (James Woods), John Erlichman (J.T. Walsh), John Dean (David Hyde Pierce), John Mitchell (E.G. Marshall), Martha Mitchell (Madeline Kahn), Gordon Liddy (John Diehl), Charles Colson (Kevin Dunn), Ron Ziegler (David Paymer), and Alexander Haig (Powers Boothe)--but it's hard to tell the players without a scorecard. We know they're Nixon insiders and we can tell the shades of gray that separate them morally. You really have to go back to the history books to get a fix on these folks, to remind yourself (or learn for the first time) who's who in the Nixon White House:

On June 17, 1972, five men were arrested inside the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate hotel complex in Washington, D.C.: Bernard Barker, Virgilio Gonzalez, Eugenio Martinez, James W. McCord Jr., and Frank Sturgis. Later, two names were added: E. Howard Hunt, Jr. and G. Gordon Liddy. But through the course of the trial, Judge John J. Sirica suspected a broader conspiracy and the White House was pressured to appoint a special prosecutor, Archibald Cox, to head a special investigation. So to go back to that list of names and stars,

Bob Haldeman was Nixon's White House Chief of Staff,
John Erlichman was a counsel and assistant to the President,
John Dean was another White House counsel,
John Mitchell was Nixon's Attorney General,
Martha Mitchell was his outspoken wife who tipped the press off on a number of things,
Gordon Liddy was the chief operative for the White House "plumbers" unit and loose cannon,
Charles Colson was Nixon's chief counsel,
Ron Ziegler was Nixon's White House press secretary,
Alexander Haig follwed H.R. Haldeman as White House Chief of Staff.

Things get so confusing at times that it's a welcome relief to get to Nixon's "political obituary" in the film, which is a news-clip summary that we would have seen on the TV, chronicling Nixon's career and giving us a bigger-picture context for all of the drama.

The only historical figure who's easily recognizable is Henry Kissinger, played by a heftier Paul Sorvino who at least looks like Kissinger and sports a thick German accent. Others may look the part, but there are so many players, the events are so complicated, and the narrative jumps around so much that it's tough to keep them straight. Which brings me to J. Edgar Hoover (Bob Hoskins). Stone runs with the rumors and speculation that the first FBI director who ran his own empire was also a closeted gay who liked to dress up in women's clothing. Partly, those rumors sprouted from Hoover's relationship with associate FBI director Clyde Tolson (Brian Bedford).

I still don't know who "Jack Jones" was, the character played by Larry Hagman. Then again, at the pace that this moves ("West Wing" brisk, considering all the talk and character interaction), it's doubtful that Stone expected anyone to get a handle on all the details. The focus is really on Nixon, so much so that everything else is in the background. Vice President Spiro Agnew, for example, is only shown on a news clip announcing his resignation because he failed to report income. So just as Nixon became the first president to resign rather than face impeachment, Agnew became the first vice president to resign because of criminal charges. But that's another story, and this one already runs over three and a half hours.

Stone says this film is one of which he's most proud, and it does keep you interested. Anthony Hopkins does a good job as Nixon, though there are only a few moments throughout when he actually makes you think, Wow, he looks and acts and talks just like him, and the upper-lip thing gets a little old. Because we see Nixon in crisis, it's tough to believe he was ever in control, or that he was ever attractive enough for anyone to love. That Welsh accent of Hopkins slips in on occasion as well. It's easier to believe Joan Allen as Pat Nixon, though you really can't fault any of the performances. The acting is top-notch, and that's one gigantic plus that "Nixon" has going for it. The other thing is that Stone really does manage to create a sympathetic character rather than demonizing Nixon or, just as unforgivable, turning him into a caricature worthy only of impressionists like Rich Little. Stone also provides some interesting shots, as when the White House is framed and lit during a thunderstorm to look almost Gothic.

But Stone really has never really trusted his audiences to pick up on such things, and his "theses" he's always hit pretty hard--too hard. Like, you'd have to be on life-support not to notice that Stone thinks so much of Nixon's insecurity and drive to prove himself comes from his Quaker upbringing and the loss of two brothers (yeah, it's also hard not to have a "The wrong kid died" flashback from "Walk Hard" during these scenes that come across as being overly obvious). "Think of me always as they faithful dog," a young Nixon tells his mother. Much later, Henry Kissinger says, "Can you imagine what this man might have been if he had ever been loved?" Oh, please.

Stone is just as heavy-handed with the visuals, at first using black-and-white to signal a flashback, but then incorporating black-and-white moments into present-day color sequences as well. Is it artsy? Yes, but it calls attention to the process and makes you wonder why he's doing it. And Stone loves his symbols. When Pat Nixon becomes bitter about secrets her husband is keeping, the visual suddenly depicts Pat in flames. In another one of those heavily symbolic moments, Nixon has just finished ranting about dropping "the big one" when Stone cuts to a plate of red meat that "bleeds" all over in a lingering shot.

It's long and heavy-handed, but "Nixon" boasts a strong cast, dialogue that mostly rings true, and a profile of a man that disappointed himself long before he did his country.

Stone plays with so many different visual looks that it's hard to assign a number here. Some scenes are deliberately grainy, while in others the colors are obviously undersaturated. You can gauge the level of digital manipulation by looking at the altered Nixon-Kennedy debate footage that places Hopkins in the same frames as Kennedy. Stone obviously went with a less sharp look in a number of subsequent scenes in order to make the film feel historically real. Then again, some black-and-white scenes REALLY look rough, while others look as crisp as the latest film noir recreation. Again, this is obviously a directorial decision. In 1080p, the video looks probably as good as this film is ever going to, with sharp edges in some scenes and fully saturated colors in others reminding us of the Hi-Def quality. With such a long film it's no surprise that "Nixon" was transferred to a BD-50 (AVC/MPEG-4 codec). "Nixon" is presented in 2.40:1 aspect ratio.

The featured soundtrack is an English PCM 5.1 uncompressed audio that has a nice spread across the front speakers but really doesn't involve the rear effects speakers all that much. It's a clean and crisp soundtrack that allows the silence to speak volumes without distortion, and that's as important to Stone as the John Williams score. Bass is strong without being overpowering, and treble is bright without being tinny. Overall, a decent soundtrack, but not one I'd call dynamic, and not one that really makes full use of all the channels. An additional audio option is English Dolby Digital 5.1, with subtitles in English SDH, French, and Spanish. Bonus features are in English 2.0.

There's one new bonus feature on this "Election Year Edition," and that's "Beyond Nixon," a new documentary filmed by Stone's son, Sean. It's only 35 minutes long, but there's a nice blend of real historical figures and talking heads (the best of which are John Dean himself and a former member of Congress who served on the committee to impeach Nixon). It's interesting to hear Dean defend the film against people who complained that Stone's Nixon was too much of a boozer. Gore Vidal is surprisingly sympathetic to Nixon, and talks about the former president's depression and psychotherapy following his two crushing defeats. But you get just as interesting of a commentary from right-winger Robert Novak, who grouses that "Nixon was bad enough without fictionalizing him and demonizing him." One phrase stuck with me: "the can-do self-hypnosis of the military." There are some gems here, in a really short time span.

The other bonus features are the same as on the Collector's Edition. Stone offers an "A" and a "B" commentary, and since there are gaps in each, you wonder why he couldn't just combine his remarks into one. Does anyone really want to watch a three-and-a-half hour movie three times, just to hear what Stone has to say? On one he focuses more on the making of the film, while on the other he pontificates on Nixon and what made him tick (or not). The commentaries are on the same disc as the feature, while the other bonus features are contained on a second disc.

Included here is the sometimes testy interview that Stone did for Charlie Rose, where you watch Stone squirm like a political candidate at times. It's an engaging, meandering, substantial conversation. Rounding out the bonus features are 10 deleted scenes with opening and closing remarks by Stone, and the original theatrical trailer.

Bottom Line:
Stone gets the title and focus to match in "Nixon," which, though it's ostensibly about Watergate and the Bay of Pigs and Vietnam and the various things that helped put him in power (and remove him), zeroes in on character in ways that "JFK" did not, leaving the events in the periphery. It's this Shakespearian treatment that makes Nixon fascinating. Stone's film reminds us that in 1968, Nixon really was "the one" who was elected to end a war and then failed to do so in timely fashion. Nixon's foreign policy accomplishments are as worthy of our remembering as the failures represented by Watergate.


Film Value