I got intrigued to finally watch NIXON — I had always been kind of intrigued to see it but not enough, apparently, to actually see it — after hearing Oliver Stone talk about it, and seeing a lengthy — really extraordinary lengthy — clip of it during his Edinburgh masterclass.
Fiona and I were both rather taken by Anthony Hopkins’ performance, but Fiona kept getting tired out by the sheer duration of the thing, and all those names — having missing Watergate ‘s opening run, due to youth, we felt we were experiencing it in real time, with added flashbacks. So we watched it in about four parts, which is admittedly not ideal.
Let’s be clear: bits of this film are terrible. Stylistically there’s a lot of hangover from NATURAL BORN KILLERS, which took the faux-documentary elements of JFK — switching film stocks, flash cuts, b&w and still photo inserts — and pumped them up into sheer hallucination. It’s a film whose brio I admire but whose message and attitude I despise, and which makes me feel really ill every time I see more than a few minutes of it. But I would grant it’s effective. (I don’t blame the film for inspiring actual atrocities: but there is nothing in it which would not be flattering to someone contemplating an atrocity — the serial killers are the only characters with integrity, apart from the civilians who don’t matter — Tarantino’s original draft is positively moralistic compared to Stone’s revision.)
In NIXON, some of the techniques are flat-out awful: superimposing napalm blasts behind Nixon as he mounts the steps of the Lincoln Memorial — a new low in taste. Put it alongside the shark eating a victim filmed from inside the shark’s mouth in 3D in JAWS 3D. But with Robert Richardson lensing, this filmic atrocity abuts some truly stunning shots of the statue itself. And then comes the bit Scorsese got very excited about — Nixon goes out of sync. He says a line, pauses — and his voice continues. And then we jump-cut to a very slightly different close-up just as he finished his new line, his lips moving in time with it for the space of half a syllable. “This is new! We haven’t seen this before!” snapped Marty, and he’s right. And not much since. But it’s powerful — it’s not just Stone, stoned, mucking about in the edit, though it might have come about that way. It conveys in vivid fashion a familiar human sensation, when we find ourselves saying something. Our mouth and brain are out of sync, and there’s a belated moment of realisation when we grasp what we’ve said. Or else, we’re concentrating so hard on what we’re saying, we kind of miss the moment of actually saying it. Intense conversations have this quality.
Dance, Nixon, dance!
Hopkins is very enjoyable — so much so, that when the movie finally shows us the real Tricky Dicky, it’s a surprise how little resemblance there is — there is, in fact, no resemblance. I think Hopkins may be wearing contacts and teeth, but otherwise the team have wisely decided not to disguise him. In HITCHCOCK, Hopkins is plastered in makeup but can’t do the voice. Here, he gets to look human, he sort of does the voice, and he gets the manner, or at any rate A manner which is fascinating and horrifying to watch.
Best Nixon: Philip Baker Hall in Altman’s film of Donald Freed and Arthur M Stone’s SECRET HONOR. Hall doesn’t exactly look like Nixon but he is a Nixon type, if he’ll forgive me for saying so.
Worst Nixon: the poor guy in the prosthetic nonsense in WATCHMEN, a big expensive film with inexplicably terrible makeup. He looks like he’s wearing a leftover Nixon Halloween mask from POINT BREAK. A good plot twist would be to have him rip his face off and be Tom Cruise underneath.
Best possible Nixon — Walter Matthau. Only he had the scrotumnal countenance. And, if we disregard all the twinkly rogues he played in his late career and recall his charmless villains of the fifties, then it all happens. Just sharpen his nose and lighten his hair.
Hopkins works harder than Baker to adapt his mode of performing, because he obviously HAS to. He has no genetic advantages. Very smart costuming manages to make his shoulders behave like Nixon’s shoulders, with Hopkins’ help.
Stone was amusingly scornful of most of his collaborators (in a way that makes you slightly suspect him of being an asshole) — I paraphrase: “I liked Hopkins as an actor because you always felt you could see his thinking going on behind his eyes. Having worked with him, I don’t know what he actually finds to think about…” Stone reported that Hopkins struggled terribly with the accent, and one day was riding an elevator with Paul Sorvino (transformed by makeup and performance astonishingly into a perfect Kissinger) and asked how P.S. thought the rehearsals were going. “Well, you’ve got a lot of work to do,” said Sorvino, and Stone had to either wrench Hopkins down from the ceiling or high-tackle him on the way to the airport as he tried to flee the country, I forget which.
I can report that the struggle was worth it!
As the movie lurches from bad bit — a March of Time newsreel that’s unconvincing in itself and a lame bit of condensed exposition even in the abstract — to good bit — lots of performers we like — Madeleine Khan, Larry Hagman, James Woods, J.T. Walsh (a great actor who had somehow slipped out of mm mind altogether in the few years since his death, a terrible thing) — I started to appreciate the hallucinatory feel. Maybe because it covers a lot of the same material, the film has much in common with the far more modest SECRET HONOR, but whereas the Altman takes place in a single room which comes to feel like Nixon’s headspace, all of NIXON, wherever the action takes place, feels like Nixon’s disordered mind — or Stone’s. Some of the Deutsch tilts and extreme low angles feel forced and melodramatic, but some of the psychedelic madness works, mainly in conjunction with Hopkins’ sweaty grimacing. Nixon, we are told, was trying to appear mad to make the Russians afraid. As Nick Nolte observes in MOTHER NIGHT, “Be very careful what you pretend to be, because in the end, you ARE what you appear to be.”
“Don’t worry, I’ll use the old Nixon charm,” says Hopkins, and then performs a wink that makes him instantly morph into Quasimodo — a role he has previously played.
I quite liked John Williams’ music. For once, it doesn’t feel on-the-nose, maybe because it’s never quite clear where Nixon’s nose is.
Oh, apart from the opening biblical quote, “What shall it profit a man…” Give Williams a hackneyed biblical quote and you know what you’ll get from him.
Not quite sure what to make of Bob Hoskins as J. Edgar Hoover. Stone overplays the homosexual angle just as he did in JFK, and seems to be using it as evidence of moral corruption. On the other hand, acknowledging Hoover’s sexuality may be more respectful than downplaying it to nothingness, as other biopics tend to do, either by necessity or sheer discomfort (Eastwood?). Hoover’s big scene with Nixon is awkward as we have two Brits trying to out-Amurrican each other, while Stone cuts to foaming racehorses, symbolism which would certainly be lead-footed if we knew what the hell he was getting at. But I must say, the looming closeups with their lysergic sharpness and broiling intensity made for quite a scene. It’s bad AND good, much like the film.
(I miss Bob Hoskins.)