Nixon (1995) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

As Nixon's cohorts, Haldeman and Erlichman, mused, the Trickster could have weathered the entire Watergate crisis, the silly third-rate burglary that undid his presidency. He had two separate opportunities, two chances to get on the train before it left the station. Both times, he screwed the pooch, and nobody really knows why.

1. He started the cover-up rolling when he said "I want Hunt paid," against the advice of all his advisors, and without a satisfactory explanation. If he had said "fuck Hunt," there would have been nothing to investigate except the bungled burglary accomplished by a bunch of crazies acting on their own authority.

2. After the 1972 election, he could simply have told the complete truth about his involvement up to that point, which wasn't yet significant. He could have apologized to the American people, and chopped off the heads of those who acted inappropriately. It required ten words he could not bring himself to say: "Mistakes were made on my watch. My responsibility. I'm sorry."

The film "Nixon" is Oliver Stone's attempt to explain those two failings through a psychological deconstruction of Nixon.

In my opinion, the film does an excellent job on the second matter, using only the historical facts (with minor adjustments), documented conversations, and Nixon's own recollections of his family. 

In evaluating Richard Nixon's career, one can't help but be impressed by what he accomplished. Born to a Quaker family, his father a grocer, unable to manage the East Coast connections necessary to get him the right undergraduate education, not a born leader, not a gifted athlete or a war hero, uncomfortable with people, paranoid, self-pitying, whiny, uncharismatic -  not many people would have predicted that this youth would become president of the United States. Yet he had his own form of greatness, and he made it. Through a combination of shrewd manipulation, cynical coattail-riding, shameless self-justification, maudlin self-promotion, and genuine intelligence, he finally found himself on the top of the heap. The grocer's kid found himself sitting face to face with Mao and Brezhnev, setting the stage for the end of the cold war.

 "Imagine what the man might have accomplished", says Kissinger in the film, "if anyone had ever loved him"


Despite Stone's lack of admiration for Nixon, he manages to show the greatness of the man as well as his pettiness, and pictures him as a classical tragic hero by showing how he toppled from the heights because of his own character flaws. The film is revealing and touching when it portrays the man who could never have said, "I'm sorry, I screwed up."




Where the film fails is in its hypothetical answer to the other key question: Why did Nixon want Hunt paid off? As Hunt himself said to John Dean, we should be asking ourselves not why Howard Hunt could have had the temerity to blackmail the president of the United States, but why the president felt he should pay. Stone tries to explain by weaving a web of speculation based upon some ongoing Nixon utterances about "opening the whole Bay of Pigs thing", the 18 1/2 minute gap in one of the tapes, Nixon's obsession with John Kennedy, Stone's obsession with the Kennedy assassination, Nixon's refusal to part with more than 60 hours of the 4000 hours of tapes in his possession, and Howard Hunt's ongoing Cuban connections. 

Unlike the rest of the film, which is based on the public record, the speculation about these matters includes a recreation of some conversations which may or may not have ever existed.

  • First, private conversations between Richard and Pat Nixon. 
  • Second, conversations that Nixon had in Texas with some ultra right wing businessmen who tried to get him laid, hinted that they'd kill Kennedy, and begged him to run again. The last of these conversations occurred in Dallas the day before Kennedy was shot. Not many people realize that Nixon woke up in Dallas on the morning of November 22, 1963. When asked where he was when Kennedy was shot, he always said he couldn't remember, a pretty silly explanation since everyone else in the world can remember exactly where they were when Kennedy was shot. And the rest of us weren't virtually on the scene!


I guess I was OK with the Nixons discussing their divorce, and the alteration of some time-frames and facts to make the story flow better, but that little section with the right wing crazies in Dallas on November 21st, 1963 really bothers me. It seems to have sprung entirely from Stone's imagination, and its overall impact on the film is highly significant, despite the fact that it is only a tiny bit of running time. Apparently these businessmen were part of "the beast", the vast right-wing conspiracy that included the CIA, the oil interests, the exiled Cubans, the Pentagon, the mafia, Howard Hunt, and a whole bunch of assorted people related to the Bay of Pigs and the Kennedy assassination. The accumulated power of "the beast", which Nixon once helped to create, was so great that it frightened even Nixon himself, or so Oliver Stone would have us believe. The reason why Nixon paid Hunt off is the most interesting unresolved question about Nixon, but Stone chose to answer it with some wild-eyed speculation about "the beast." So, in the last analysis, I have to give Stone an "A" and an "F" on his answers to the two main questions he poses. While the character deconstruction used facts and Nixon's own words to create a plausible explanation for Nixon's failure to apologize, the Hunt payoff question was answered with bug-eyed speculation, imaginary conversations, and a crazy-ass hypothesis.

"He had greatness within his grasp."

Oliver Stone meant those words to apply to Richard M Nixon, but they would be equally appropriate some day on the headstone of one Oliver Stone himself. I have come to the conclusion that Stone and Nixon were not very different. Although Nixon had the accomplishments of a giant, he was undone by a mosquito sting because of his inherent character flaws. You could make the exact same statement about Stone in general, and about this film in particular. In general, this is a brilliant film, spoiled for me and for many other people by that one small but irritating bit of flamboyant fictionalization, the presentation of which tells you more about Oliver Stone then it does about Dick Nixon.

If you can get past that fictionalization in the middle of a fundamentally factual film, you will enjoy Stone's recreation of the era.

  • The film does a masterful job of integrating real footage with docudrama to generate an authentic feel.
  • One scene, portraying Nixon at the Lincoln Memorial with the war protestors, is one of the most brilliantly written and photographed scenes I've ever seen in any film. Those few minutes are sheer genius, almost unapproached in film history, a scene offering brilliant insight into Nixon's personality as well as magnificent visualizations.
  • The casting is flawless. Anthony Hopkins did nothing to impersonate Nixon's voice, but he got him down to a "t" - probably the best performance of his life. He was matched by Joan Allen as Pat Nixon, Jimmy Woods as Haldeman, Paul Sorvino as Kissinger, Ed Harris as Howard Hunt, and Powers Boothe as Al Haig. Even the minor roles are filled beautifully - Liddy, Brezhnev, Rockefeller, Martha Mitchell, J Edgar Hoover - you can hardly find a single person that doesn't shine through the 192 minutes of this movie.
  • Get out your film reference check list! The entire framework of the film is very similar to Citizen Kane, another flashback reconstruction of a famous American, starting with the gate outside the White House, right down to the obligatory scene with the Nixons eating alone, at opposite ends of a gigantic table.

DVD info from Amazon.

  • Widescreen anamorphic, 2.35:1

  • brief making-of featurette

  • The existing DVD is bare-bones. This is a film that really deserves a special edition, especially since the original cut was four hours long.

If you are not into Greek tragedy, film history or current events, you may find that the film doesn't have enough of a cinematic structure to pull you along. Recalling Scoopy's first rule of biopics, I kept wondering if I would have liked the film if it had been the exact same film about a completely fictional set of characters, and I'm not sure that I would have. The film was also dud at the box office so if you don't care about Nixon and his era, there are indications that this may bore you silly.

If you are interested in the events of the world in the Nixon era, or if you are just interested in well-crafted political movies in general, this film is a must-see, despite its flaws. 

The Critics Vote

  • General consensus: three and a half stars. Ebert 4/4, Berardinelli 3/4, Maltin 3/4, Apollo 77.

The People Vote ...

  • With their votes ... IMDB summary: IMDb voters score it 7.0.
  • With their dollars ... it was a great disappointment. Made for $50 million and starring the white-hot Anthony Hopkins, it grossed only $13 million in the USA
IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, this film is a very strong C+. Like its subject, it should have been an A, but failed. 

Return to the Movie House home page