Friday, 28 June 2013

ADMIRABLE FAILURES: Nixon (1995)

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Nixon (USA, 1995)
Directed by Oliver Stone
Starring Anthony Hopkins, Joan Allen, James Woods, Paul Sorvino

I've had a problem with Oliver Stone for many years. While many find his style and choice of films to be bold, gripping and intelligent, for the most part I view his work as blunt, broad and hagiographic. Stone's political films don't so much raise questions as shout opinions at the audience, and he frequently twists the truth for the sake of furthering his own viewpoint (just watch The Doors if you don't believe me). For all the admiration he garners for his conviction and fighting spirit, the fact remains: he's not a film-maker, he's a lecturer.

The ironic thing about Nixon, therefore, is that it ultimately fails for exactly the opposite of all the normal reasons. Whereas JFK bashes you on the head for three hours until you break down and believe a totally spurious conclusion, Nixon doesn't really know what it wants to say, with its knee-jerk final act capping off an uncertain and rather aimless two hours prior to this. There are interesting moments or engaging ideas within said time, but ultimately the film is an admirable failure.
To his credit, Stone is upfront about the incomplete nature of existing accounts. The film begins with a statement about how relatively little has been made public from the Nixon administration, and how what follows is the closest possible replication of what happened based upon what is available. Even if Stone doesn't entirely follow through on this (for instance, in the plumbers scene), he deserves credit for announcing this upfront, rather than using it as an excuse to justify his conclusions. This was the mistake he made with JFK, embracing an already discredited theory and then trying to paint the film as being about the creation of myths, trying to start a dialogue that never materialised.
Nixon raises a number of interesting ideas around the nature and history of American politics, all of which are explored in some detail over the running time. One of the biggest themes is the relationship between the ordinary man and the establishment, something which is reflected in Nixon himself and in the students that protest against the policies of his government. Nixon is positioned as a man of humble birth, who had to work hard for everything he ever had and who, in his words, "never profited from public office". His plight is set against the fortunes of the Kennedy family, who are born with silver spoons in their mouths and seem to have success and popularity handed to them on a plate.
As much as Nixon paints himself as the common man, it becomes very clear very early on just how entrenched he is in the establishment, and how little he either can change it or is willing to change it. The political system is portrayed as one of deep-rooted, historical corruption, with a series of vested interests pulling strings, money changing hands and all kinds of loaded glances being exchanged. Stone can't resist slipping into caricature every so often - for instance, shooting all the scenes with Larry Hagman in deliberate shadow. But for the most part he lets the characters paint the picture, and it's not a pretty one.
One of the key scenes in Nixon comes when the President takes a late-night walk to the Lincoln Memorial, and is surrounded by angry students who are protesting against the Vietnam War. It's a painful scene to watch since it makes us resent both parties: Nixon comes across as out-of-touch, slippery and aloof, while the students are all obnoxious, slogan-spouting layabouts. But then Stone pulls the rabbit out of the hat, using our discomfort to explore the entrenched relationship between the state and the military, which results in near-constant demands for war being supplied by the state. It's a brief but gripping analysis of the military-industrial complex, leaving us a little wiser and a lot more depressed. 
Nixon is anchored by the really good performance of Anthony Hopkins. It's an interesting performance because Hopkins manages to embody and inhabit Nixon, despite the fact that he doesn't really look like him. The voice may be a little different, but Hopkins nails Nixon's physicality, with the hunched shoulders, the forced toothy grin, the waving arms and the scowling mouth. He really captures the loneliness and insecurity of Nixon, with all his warmer scenes feeling like a thin disguise for the flawed, ruthless mind beneath the surface.
Hopkins is supported by a gallery of famous faces, of which a select few really stand out. Joan Allen really convinces as Nixon's wife Pat; she has to play the foil to Nixon's more gruesome moments, and gives the audience a way in through her occasional incredulity. James Woods is brilliant as H. R. Haldeman, being scarily driven in every scene and making us feel intimidated even when he's not saying anything. Bob Hoskins is enjoyable as J. Edgar Hoover; while he doesn't exactly nail the character, Hoover is more of a cipher in this film and Hoskins at the very least has fun with his lines. And Paul Sorvino, best known for his role in Goodfellas, is completely unrecognisable as the skin-crawling Henry Kissinger.
Everything that I've said thus far would make it seem like Nixon was a success, and that I had gone from being a Stone sceptic to an Oliver apologist. Sadly, this is not the case. Nixon is a film of interesting ideas - make no mistake about that - but it's also a film of great moments rather than an incrementally gripping story. In between those moments lies a meandering, shambling narrative that definitely overstays its welcome. Put simply, there is nothing about this film which justifies the three-hour running time.
I've often made the argument with biographical films that the best approach is to focus on one event or series of events in a person's life, and use them as a microcosm in which we can hint at wider events or aspects of one's character. The King's Speech, for example, worked because it was focussed around one event from which the ideas and themes could naturally flow. Had Tom Hooper attempted to tell the story of George VI from early life right up to that speech, it would have been far more cumbersome and less dramatically focussed.
While this film has a different focal point to Frost/Nixon, and is arguably more artistically ambitious, Ron Howard's work is ultimately superior because it has focus. It uses the Watergate interviews to tease out details about Nixon's character, as well as that of Frost and other figures in their respective professions. While Howard is giving you a little taste and allowing you to form your own conclusions, Stone prefers to browbeat us with information, trying to argue whatever point may be available by beating us and the plot into submission.
Even by Stone's standards, Nixon is ill-disciplined, not only in its length but in its lack of adherence to any kind of thesis. For the first two hours it stumbles from place to place, lurching between pantomime villain characterisation and a grown-up political drama. All the interesting ideas I mentioned before are raised in a specific scene or couple of scenes, but none of them are ever turned into a recurring theme or made a part of genuine foreshadowing. Then in the last hour, when Watergate begins to gather pace, the film turns into a knee-jerk hatchet job and ends far too abruptly.
This over-reaching on Stone's part has the unfortunate consequence of trivialising all the more sinister aspects of Nixon's rule. The film constantly treats the next scandal of the administration as if it is the worst thing possible, but Stone presents the events so clinically that it feels like a list rather than a downward spiral. Only the Watergate section has emotional weight, because it plays out at a pace that allows us to see the different shifts of the characters. Besides that, it's just a blur of lies, jargon and corruption with no way in for the non-political viewer.
For all the information he gathered for it, Stone has ultimately delivered a very empty film. He opens a discussion about Nixon, but because there's no focal point or commitment to a given theme, we come away feeling like we know as little (or perhaps even less) about Nixon than we did going in. The film reflects its central character's habits, jumping from one subject or line of reasoning to the next out of convenience or desperation - and every time it makes such a jump, it comes across as a little less structurally sound. Even with all the backstory and the flashbacks to Nixon's childhood, it all feels perilously thin.
Nixon is nothing more than an admirable failure, being as deeply flawed and elusive as its central character. It does boast several very good performances, and is the most successful of Stone's films about US presidents, being more interesting than JFK and less cartoonish than W.. But for all Stone's ambition in tackling the man, he ultimately comes away with empty hands and a very hollow result. Stone fans will lap it up, but the rest of us should opt for Frost/Nixon.

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NEXT REVIEW: Seraphim Falls (2006)

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