"Nixon's" not the one.
Rumors of its greatness have been exaggerated by a suspiciously pliant national press. In fact, the new Oliver Stone psycho-bio, which attempts to re-imagine the late president as a Mad King, a Republican Lear bleeding passion, greatness and hubris at once, turns all too swiftly into just another Watergate Wallow, lost in the arcana of obscure, undramatized detail, crackpot theorizing and White House soap opera.
Stone's worst problem is his own titanic ego, which compels him not to begin afresh but to see this film as a continuation from and a validation of "JFK." Thus at the halfway point, he uncovers the same crackpot conspiracy: A combine consisting of the usual suspects -- right wing Texas oil billionaires (really, did he have to get Larry Hagman for that part?), ex-CIA operatives, sleazy-slick Mafioso and firebrand Cubans.
His theory on the missing 18 1/2 minutes of tape is especially banal, to say nothing of libelous: That during that stretch, Nixon imputed knowledge of the operation that ended Kennedy's life on the streets of Dallas in 1963. To be fair, Stone isn't alleging Nixon's complicity along cui bono lines. Rather, he's suggesting that Nixon was involved in the '50s in setting up a CIA unit whose efforts, out of control, redounded to create the assassination of Kennedy. Nixon's not implicated, not directly; rather, after the fact, he was able to read the signs, put two and two together, and understand the consequences of the forces he helped set in motion, and how he profited from them.
But like many of the points "Nixon" makes, it's hazy, ominous, an inference rather than an accusation, and ultimately confounding.
Far more debilitating is something that has dogged Stone for a number of productions, and it has nothing to do with politics or history. Once Hollywood's surest narrative technician (as in "Salvador" and "Platoon"), he's lost his gift for story-telling. Even in the seemingly plot-driven "Natural Born Killers" he thought the material was so sensational that he didn't need a narrative mechanism, and thus the movie was flat and dull despite all the violence.
There's a similar delusion at play here. He's so fascinated by Nixon that he thinks Anthony Hopkins' great dinosaur-sinking-in-quicksand portrayal is enough. So Stone never really tells the story of Watergate and denudes one of the most gripping spontaneous narratives in American history of much of its punch. We see things only from the inside, in the hushed sepulcher of the White House, which, with its empty marble corridors and echo-banging vaulted spaces comes to seem like Eliot's cathedral the night death came for the archbishop. The movie goes flat in Nixon kitsch: The glowering, sullen, almost pitiful man-beast, sinking in the mud, screaming out at the fates, betrayed by -- well, by whom? Stone never observes this game from any other perspective than inside the White House. The movie becomes an ordeal by suffering. It's not tragic so much as loud.
"Nixon" is far better in its early going. The narrative device is the flashback. One night, late in Watergate frenzy, Nixon retreats to his office with a fifth of bourbon and a ton of woe. Once Alexander Haig (Powers Boothe) sets up the tape recorder, he begins to spool through his own life, and the images wash over him in a torrent of remembering. The movie is at its most visually arresting here, too: hurtling through film stocks, creating touching scenes of the parched boyhood and the lack of love or kindness anywhere.
Stone's portrait of the man is surprisingly compassionate and seeks to connect with RMN's humanity, not condemn his ideological rigidity. Stone builds the image of a man haunted by the deaths of brothers on either side of him and instructed by his unbending mother that his survival is an indication of God's special love for him, and of his unique destiny.
Stone admires this Nixon. Awkward, fumbling, wretchedly unsure, he'll undergo any torment to achieve his ends -- driving his beloved Pat on dates with other boys, serving as the Whittier Eleven's tackling dummy for four feckless years of sub-varsity football. We see how these stresses accumulate to create the hunchbacked Richard III the rest of us knew, loved or hated -- or possibly loved and hated -- simultaneously.
And Stone avoids the usual liberal critique. Little is made of Nixon's red-baiting assaults on Jerry Voorhees and Helen Gahagan Douglas at the beginning of his career, only a little more of the Hiss case (which Stone doesn't allege was a ruthless frame-up). Stone recognizes the greatness in Nixon -- the opening of China, the clever games of "triangular diplomacy" that played the Russians off against the Chinese.
But in the end, the movie isn't about history at all, or even about Nixon. It's about acting. Beautifully performed, the film comes to seem airless and claustrophobic; it has nothing to drive it forward. Hopkins is great, as far as he goes, but Nixon is in some sense so irreducible that we never think, "That's him, that's the guy." No, we think, "Boy is Hopkins good!"
Joan Allen gets Pat's rigidity and good-soldierliness quite well, but the script makes her (indeed many of the characters) entirely too perceptive. She's like Joan Didion behind a plastic Pat mask, always offering little epiphanies of insight that feel like the sort of thing we might know now but nobody knew then. Surprisingly, James Woods and J. T. Walsh make sympathetic, loyal minions of H. R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman, and even Paul Sorvino's submersion in latex doesn't turn Kissinger into a plastic robot.
But does it have to be three hours long? The point is made early on, and then it goes around in circles, without a lot of variety in tone or sense of progress. My only regret after it was over was that, after today, I won't have Oliver Stone to kick around any more.