Oliver Stone’s 1995 political epic Nixon is told largely through flashbacks a la Citizen Kane, covering roughly five decades in the life of the 37th President of the United States, Richard Milhous Nixon (Anthony Hopkins). The film begins just prior to his resignation from the Oval Office over the Watergate scandal, and backtracks through the highs and lows of Nixon’s private and public lives. Along the way, we see how the lifelong battle with his inner demons pushed away those that were closest to him, including his devoted wife Patricia (Joan Allen), while destroying his administration and legacy in the process.
Thirteen years ago, when I had first heard that Stone’s post-Natural Born Killers project would be a film based on the life and times of the most disliked American president in history (at the time, that is), two words instantly came to mind: character assassination. After all, this is the man whose cinematic attacks on the media in NBK, America’s foreign policy in Salvador and his Vietnam trilogy (including Best Picture winner Platoon) as well as the government in 1991’s JFK were, while justifiable, hardly what one would deem subtle. Combine Stone’s visceral style with his trademark combination of fact and fiction, and one could only imagine what he had lined up for the former commander-in-chief, who only had passed on the year before.
Surprisingly (almost shockingly), Stone presents a drama that strived to be…even-handed. An intricate look at a very complex individual, Nixon’s script, written by Stephen J. Rivele, Christopher Wilkinson and Stone, is a blend of veracity and suggestion with a big disclaimer at the beginning to cement the fact. It is also a screenplay that is neither pro nor con in its interpretation of the man. Neither condemning nor canonizing and embodied by Anthony Hopkins’ superb performance, Stone’s Nixon is someone more fitting of a Shakespearian or Greek tragedy than he is a political “biopic” (Stone claims the film is not a biopic, I think otherwise). Hopkins’ Tricky Dick is one who had “greatness in his grasp” (as we are repeatedly told throughout the film) but in the end failed to achieve it. Hopkins doesn’t really sound or act like the real Nixon, but his studied turn allows the viewer to gain a bit of insight into his persona, allowing the viewer to empathize and, dare we say it? Sympathize with Nixon on a few occasions.
Backed by Victor Kempster’s excellent production design that accurately recreates the various time eras, handsome widescreen cinematography by Robert Richardson and John Williams’ duly somber music score, Stone’s assured direction helps move the film along at a brisk pace despite its 212-minute run time. Is Nixon as accomplished a work as some of Stone’s other movies? It almost is. Some of the visual flourishes that the director employs, such as superimposing explosions in the background during Nixon’s visit to the Lincoln Memorial and switching film stock in mid-scene, are distracting, while the Kane-esque flashback structure dilutes dramatic tension on occasion. Those aside, Nixon emerges as and remains one of Stone’s stronger directorial efforts, one worthy of more respect than it has received over the past thirteen years.
Per the usual for a Stone production, the ensemble supporting cast for Nixon is nothing short of excellent. Joan Allen richly deserved her Best Supporting Actress nomination for her turn as Pat “Buddy” Nixon, while James Woods, Paul Sorvino, David Hyde-Pierce, the late J.T. Walsh and Powers Booth all excel as members of Nixon’s cabinet. Ed Harris and Bob Hoskins are suitably both slimy -and in Hoskin’s case, creepy- as ex-CIA spook E. Howard Hunt and FBI head J. Edgar Hoover, respectively.
The edition of Nixon runs approximately 22 minutes (not 28 as the cover claims) longer than the theatrical release. Two important sequences have been restored: a meeting between Nixon and CIA director Richard Helms (Sam Waterston) and one of Nixon and J. Edgar Hoover (Bob Hoskins) discussing the possible leak in Nixon’s cabinet as well as the possibility of Nixon bugging his own office. Extended/Director cuts usually end up being films with extra padding that add little in the end, quality-wise, and wind up ruining the pacing of the film. An excellent case in point is the 17 minutes of footage re-inserted into JFK. The content restored to Nixon actually does the opposite: the material is worthy of restoration and it winds up making the film better.
Nixon is a film whose virtues certainly outweigh its flaws. The commendable attempt by Stone and company to present one of the twentieth century’s most infamous leaders in a new light is a far cry from the character assassination I was expecting (I’m having my doubts the same will hold true on his Stone’s next film, “W”). Just as the real-life Nixon felt he served the presidency in the shadow of John Kennedy, Nixon the movie has unfairly lived under the shadow of Stone’s JFK. Perhaps now, people will be able to see this movie and appreciate it for what it is (a great study of a flawed individual) then for what it is not (JFK II).
Nixon may not have received much love at the box office, the Oscars or even on its first DVD release, which was a non-anamorphic mess. That is about to change thanks to this terrific new 2-disc Blu-ray special edition. Following a couple of missteps via rehashed transfers that ranged from so-so (Signs) to outright horrific (Gangs of New York), Buena Vista Home Entertainment appears to be back on track with Nixon.
Disc one houses the 212-minute movie and four audio tracks on a BD-50 (two film soundtracks, two audio commentaries by Stone), with the movie presented in a 1080p/AVC-MPEG 4 encode. As was the case with JFK and Natural Born Killers, Stone and cinematographer Robert Richardson use various types of film and video stocks and formats on Nixon. There is no doubt that this proved, or will prove in the case of JFK (due this fall on Blu-ray) to be an encoding nightmare.
Fortunately, The Mouse House was up to the task as the transfer on Nixon is rock solid. The print used is in very good condition, with only a few nicks and marks to be found here and there. The restored footage looks as good as the rest of the film and appears to be blemish free as well. Colors and picture detail is rich, black levels are strong if slightly subdued, and grain levels are fine throughout. If DNR has been used on this transfer, then its presence is definitely on the minimal side. I did notice some softness in some of the earlier scenes, but that might be the result of the anamorphic lenses used by Richardson than the encoding process.
Despite being a largely dialogue-driven affair, Nixon does offer a nice sound field that draws the viewer in. Effects such as crowds and military planes flying around make their presence know in the surrounds, while John Williams’ score is nicely handled in the right and left fronts. Center-channel dialogue throughout is also clear, and the LFE channel also makes it presence know on a regular basis. There are two film soundtracks offered: a 640kbps 5.1 Dolby Digital surround and an uncompressed 5.1 surround track (48 kHz/16-bit). The Dolby Digital track is perfectly acceptable for viewing, but the uncompressed track is the better of the two and is the recommended one providing you have the equipment to properly decode it.
I found the supplemental material on the Blu-ray of Nixon to be solid. While there isn’t a huge amount of bonus material taking the movie’s subject matter into account, the extras do give a nice insight both Nixon the man and Nixon the movie.
There is not one, but Two Audio Commentaries found on the first disc, both from Stone. As he has been on his other commentary tracks, Stone delivers a low-key approach to the commentary tracks, but offers up a fair amount of information both on the production and on the real-life events the film is based on.
Written and directed by Stone’s son, Sean (who also appears in the movie), the new 35-minute documentary Beyond Nixon is a fascinating look back at the real-life Nixon and features interviews with political professors, White House Special Council members, one of Nixon’s speechwriters as well as the real John Dean (who thought Stone’s movie was quite accurate), columnist Robert Novak (who detested the movie) and novelist Gore Vidal. The documentary is divided into four sections: Nixon as a historical character, as President, his abuse of power and his legacy. Both pro and con, this examination makes for a nice addition to what is covered in the movie.
In December of 1995, Stone appeared on The Charlie Rose Show for an hour-long interview on the movie, making the film, taking dramatic license as well as addressing the criticism leveled against both Stone and the production. On one or two occasions, Stone gets a bit defensive with Rose on a few of the questions he asks, but this only makes the interview hour all the more interesting. Originating from a 1995 videotape source, the picture and sound quality are rather substandard. It’s certainly watchable; just don’t expect HD quality.
Oliver Stone presents an 8 ½-minute introduction to approximately one hour of Deleted Scenes that have been ported over from the original DVD release. While most of these remain out of the film, two of the cut scenes, Nixon’s meeting with Helms and Nixon’s Oval Office chat with Hoover (Bob Hoskins), have been put back into the movie. Why they remain in the deleted scenes supplement is a bit puzzling, but they can be skipped over easily enough. The remaining forty minutes of cut scenes are good, but I can see why they were cut (Four hours of Nixon? No thanks). All of the scenes are in fair condition and 480p resolution.
Finally, the 4 1/2-minute Theatrical Trailer is included. The quality is roughly on the same level as the Charlie Rose episode, which is nothing to write home about.
Whether it is due to the political climate America has been in for the past eight years or the simple fact that the film is simply better than I remember it being thirteen years ago, Nixon is a movie that has aged remarkably well. This is an intelligent, involving drama that, while long, is never boring or uninteresting. Buena Vista’s two-disc Blu-ray edition offers an excellent transfer and solid supplemental material. If you’re a fan of the film, this is a no-brainer. If you have never seen the film and are curious about one of Stone’s most underrated works, then I strongly recommend you give Nixon a rental. Either way, the title comes highly recommended.
– Shawn Fitzgerald
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