NIXON (1995)

 
REVIEWS
 
Illustrations by Zach Trenholm

Oliver Stone's Nixon is controversial and shocked both fans and critics with its sympathetic representation of President Richard Nixon.  Many critics seemed to agree that the film was entertaining, well-paced for its length, and well-acted, garnering numerous nominations and awards for the director and actors.  However, historians critiqued Stone's theses that President Nixon was involved in an assassination plot against Fidel Castro and also had some part in the assassination plot against Kennedy.  Feminists (including historians) did not appreciate the suggestion of Pat Nixon as an alcoholic, a charge that is not surprising since Stone has been attacked in the past for his representations of women.  Gay rights groups found fault with Stone's depiction of J. Edgar Hoover's secret homosexual lifestyle, another repeated criticism of Stone's movies.  Stone's "conspiracy" and "Beast" theses about American politics had come under attack during JFK, and these attacks would be repeated in the reception of Nixon.  What is most interesting about Stone's reviews is that they can be easily designated as negative or laudatory, rarely "mixed," since his reviewers seem to be airing their feelings about Oliver Stone as much as they air their feelings about his films.

Alleva, Richard.  "Nixon."  Commonweal 26 Jan. 1996: 19-20.
Calling Nixon the ultimate Oliver Stone movie in its paranoia, pretentiousness, and simple-minded views of recent American history, the negative review is an attack on Stone's conspiracy theories, and the many holes that would exist in the "beast" concept of government.  Alleva does use some interesting turns of phrases to describe Stone's work:

Stone's editing methods don't strive for clarity but for saturation bombing of the viewer's mind.  Besides, Stone isn't really trying to advance a factually supported case.  His incriminating montages are the cinematic equivalents of Joe McCarthy's tactics...but if his films achieve little that is practical in the narrow sense of the word, they may very well color the thinking of people, especially young people, who haven't read or thought deeply about politics.  They create a kind of reflexive suspicion about government in the spectator that is as unhealthy as reflexive trust.
Alleva likes the acting in the movie regardless of his dislike of the paranoia thesis and finds Richard Nixon was an "archetypal American" for Stone, who is an "archetypal American artist of the postmodern era."

Arroyo, Jose.  "Nixon."  Sight and Sound  6.3 (1996): 48-49.
Arroyo finds Nixon ‘riveting’ and focuses on three major aspects of the film: the lie, or Watergate cover-up”; “the deaths of brothers,” Nixon’s own brothers as well as the Kennedy brothers; and the “military-industrial complex,” or the notion of the government as a “beast.”  This review goes beyond others with its ideological discussion of the film and is a good reference for students looking for writing topics on Nixon.

Blake, Richard A.  "Nixon."  America 27 Jan. 1996: 24-25.
Blake sees Stone's goal with Nixon as an attempt to explain why, when "poised between greatness and self-destruction," Nixon chose the latter.  The columnist does not find that Stone's film answers the question but that it does deepen the ambiguities surrounding the president.  Blake compares Nixon to Citizen Kane and sees Anthony Hopkins' death grin as "a signature of the emptiness of the man who became a politician and then left the man behind."  Blake compares Nixon to the director's earlier film Natural Born Killers,which follows a couple who are both abused in childhood and commit violent crimes as a result.  Blake summarizes the film as saying that "quitting would bring annihilation, both a loss of identity and execution" and concludes that Nixonis "Part two of 'Natural Born Losers.' "  Blake charges Stone with overstating his case and oversimplifying his history, but his examples seem to be buried in metaphors, more than examples from the film.

Bruning, Fred.  "A Haunting Portrait of America's Alter Ego."  Maclean's 8 Jan. 1996: 11.
Bruning sees the film confronting the corruption of the American goverment while trying to chart the "underdeveloped emotional characteristics" of Richard Nixon.  Bruning calls the film Stone's most "complex directorial work" and asserts that only those who have "forgotten or ignored the...machinations of the Nixon White House," from the plumbers to the "honorable end" to the Vietnam War, will critique Stone for his freedom with the historical record.  For Bruning, Nixon is a "sympathetic, if stupefying, figure" and what is considered bogus history, such as Nixon's conversation with the painting of President John F. Kennedy (02:57:55, DVD), actually works as "viable psychology."  Bruning concludes that Nixon represents an uniquely American peril: by working hard to get ahead, he succeeded, and for the very reasons that he succeeded, Nixon would fall.

Charen, Mona.  "Oliver Stone Hates America: His Movies Say So."  [Allentown, Pa.] Morning Call 30 Dec. 1995: 30.
Charen calls Stone a "pernicious liar" and attacks him for his success in Hollywood as well as the "media elite" in New York and Washington.  She calls Nixon an "outrage," as well as "an insult to the intelligence of the American Public."  Charen cites the usual (often unimportant) complaints that most historians have with the film including the depiction of President Nixon as a hard drinker (and the fact that he drank martini's not scotch), as well as the film's take on the President's marriage as troubled by his attitude towards his wife.  The reviewer also attacks Stone's assertion that the famous 18 1/2 minute gap contained information that would have implicated Nixon in the deaths of John and Robert Kennedy.  Although making valid complaints, Charen does use an absurd analogy, saying that as a columnist she could write that Stone is not just a liar, but a child molester but she wouldn't out of "respect for the truth as it can be known," and "libel laws."  Charen finishes by attacking Stone's "pseudo-psychoanalysis" and his use of artistic license.

Charen's most questionable line of thinking comes when she asserts that Nixon's psychodrama is not convincing for her because "why should a child exhorted always to be honest and righteous by a religious mother turn into a monster?"  She also writes that when Nixon says to a portrait of JFK "When they look at you, they see what they want to be.  When they look at me, they see what they are," it indicates Stone's view of America as corrupt and malicious.  In the usual sensational fare, Charen describes Stone's American vision as "dark and deeply hateful" and ends by asking, "What does it say about a country when such a movie maker is so lavishly rewarded for his slanders?"

Corliss, Richard.  "Nixon."  Time 18 Dec. 1995: 74.
Corliss calls Nixon a "disappointing biopic" and a $43 million term paper that depicts the president as "the Commander in Chief as klutz."

Denby, David.  "Nixon."  New York 8 Jan. 1996: 44-47.
A well-written piece that any viewer of Nixon should read.  Denby wishes Stone would "lighten up" and sees Nixon as a step in that direction.  Denby does critique the film for its excessiveness, calling it "exhaustingly impressive" and "aesthetic terrorism" that is "bullying and redundant."  But Denby does defend the film in several important ways.  First, he sees it as a complex portrait of a man who has often only been viewed in two-dimensional terms.  Second, he defends Stone against charges of lying, saying that the director does not write newspaper articles, and "such things as dramatic shaping, acting, pace, mood, counter-mood, and so on are not just dressing but the substance of whatever it is a director wants to say."  He asserts that journalists want Stone off "their turf," and that they are not convincing about what Stone's films are trying to portray.  The most surprising kudo from Denby is when he commends Stone on his portrayal of Pat Nixon (Joan Allen), writing "he has gotten a whole woman on the screen at last."

Ebert, Roger.  Rev. of Nixon, dir. Oliver Stone.  Chicago Sun-Times 20 Dec. 1995. http://www.suntimes.com/ebert/ebert_reviews/1995/12/1012232.html.
A favorable review and worth reading by any viewer of Nixon.  Ebert finds Stone's empathetic portrait one of the best films of 1995 and compares the movie to Citizen Kane.  It is noteworthy that Ebert makes a distinction between Stone directly implicating Nixon in President Kennedy's assasination or Nixon understanding that the assassination is part of the "Beast" or the secret apparatuses in governement that spin out of control.  Nixon confides to an aide, "Whoever killed Kennedy came from this thing we created -- this Beast."  Perhaps the greatest compliment to Stone emerges when Ebert writes that Nixon would still have been a great film whether there had been a real President Nixon and that Stone has created a film that resonates like a classic tragedy.

Hoff, Joan.  "Nixon."  American Historical Review 101.4 (1996): 1173-74.
"It is not enough to point out the factual errors in Oliver Stone's latest historical travesty, Nixon.  This time, he has exceeded his previously demonstrated contempt for history and produced not just a movie made up of visual psychobabble imposed on a counterfactual base but a pornographic representation of an American president -- perhaps a first."

Hoff tells us that even though she is extremely critical of Richard Nixon's foreign policy and believed he should have been impeached for obstructing justice, she still asserts that the film is "pornographic" -- meaning that it is like "pornographic representations of rape, which objectify and commodify women and silence audiences by leaving no room for discussion of facts or debate."  Hoff also writes that Stone has "raped" Nixon and "seduced and silenced his audience."  She finds that his "paranoid, conspiracy-driven mentality" misses the complex personae of the president, who, she asserts, was "the quintessential American politician, representing both the best and worst of modern presidents."  She compellingly asserts that Nixon does not actually point towards Stone's sympathy for his subject but only exposes his flaws for gratuitous effect.  She concludes, "this movie about Nixon does not represent 'entertainment' or just another inaccurate historical account.  It should not be seen unless you already enjoy pornography; then, as one Supreme Court justice said, you will know it when you see it."

Johnson, Brian D.  "Nixon."  Maclean's 25 Dec. 1995: 85-86.
Johnson sees Nixon as a "milestone in director Oliver Stone's quest to perform cinematic therapy on the nation's soul" and describes the film as a sequel to JFK.  He describes Stone's Nixon as "scarred, selfish, vindictive, petulant, and delusional, a pathological liar haunted by ghosts, tortured by guilt and driven by a crushing inferiority complex."  It is interesting that Johnson does not think that Stone has a particular axe to grind, as he did during JFK but is instead simply making a picture about a person.

Klawans, Stuart.  "Nixon."  Nation 22 Jan. 1996: 34-35.
Klawans discusses the movie from a different angle -- instead of attacking Stone, he begins by attacking the viewers of the film, by calling them "infantile but all-wise," and pronounces the film an impressive example of "white-elephant art."  Klawans writes, "Nixon summons up ghosts in our nation's haunted attic, and that's what a movie can do."

LaSalle, Mike. "Stone's `Nixon' -- the Final Daze. " 20 Dec. 1995.
http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/1995/12/20/DD21970.DTL.
LaSalle writes that Stone's Nixon is an "overblown biographical epic" and says that Stone's problem isn't "accuracy" but "absurdity."  LaSalle focuses on the look of the character, particularly Anthony Hopkins as Nixon, and even writes that Madeline Kahn who played Martha Mitchell should have played Pat Nixon.  LaSalle finishes by adding, "Nixon doesn't work as a drama, but with a little push it might have been a great comedy."

McCarthy, Todd.  "Nixon."  Oliver Stone Close Up: The Making of His Movies.  Ed. Chris Salewicz.  New York: Thunder's Mouth Press, 1997.  xx
McCarthy calls Nixon "one more panel to his obsessional film portrait of American traumas of the 1960's and 1970's" and finds the film to be a "strenuous failure."  The Variety review forecasts that the film's commercial outlook is highly questionable due to the film's length and the public's lack of interest about President Nixon's life and times.  The review is written before the hoopla around the film began and calls the picture "uncharacteristically uncontroversial."   McCarthy criticizes the length of the film, suggesting that Stone should have simply explored the psychology of Nixon's closest associates, instead of looking into every personal and private aspect of the President's life.  McCarthy also writes that the film gives too much emphasis to the events of Watergate and doesn't focus enough on Nixon's early life, which may have given us more insight into his ideologies, or his "implementation of dirty tricks despite his moral upbringing."  Interestingly, McCarthy finds that although Stone's montage style editing worked well for Natural Born Killers, it appears "arbitrary" and "needlessly annoying" in Nixon.

Pawelczak, Andy.  "Nixon."  Films in Review 47.3-4 (1996): 62-63.
"Asking if the film works is like asking if a Rube Goldberg device works.  Gears engage, wheels spin, sparks fly, and the net result is -- phftt."  Pawelczac describes Hopkins' performance as "more impersonation than from-the-inside-out acting."  He also calls Stone's direction "excessive," "leaden," and "flat," and suggests the film white-washes some of Nixon's political actions.

Rogers, Stephen F.  "Unraveling Nixon: Some Truths Are Not so Self-Evident."  Films in Review 47.3-4 (1996): 63-64.

Rogers, in discussing Stone's scholarly critics, asks the important question, "Whose history is it anyway?"  Rogers defends both JFK and Nixon on the grounds that the former had a real impact when evidence was found that Clay Shaw, a character in the film, might have been involved in the planning of JFK's assasination.  Rogers asserts that Stone's achievement is that he "motiva[tes] his audience to think and to question the 'official' versions of history."

Safire, William.   "The Way It Really Was Not."  New York Times 27 Nov. 1995:  A15.
Safire, a star editor at the New York Times and former Nixon speechwriter, begins his review with the quote "History has had assigned to it the office of judging the past and of instructing the present for the benefit of the future."  He continues that the historian who said that, Leopold Von Ranke in 1874, rejected that "propagandistic assignment" and instead worked "to seek only to show what actually happened."  Safire goes on to critique Stone as a "cinematic historian" who instead of just showing "the way it really was," has "hyp[ed] conflict and twist[ed] facts to suit dramatic requirement or political ends."  Safire accuses Stone of "spreading distrust about American institutions" and adds later, "That's not the way it was.  I was there."  Safire fiercely argues against several "dramatic" versions of President Nixon and defends the President's desire to end "the war with honor."  He points out that spiked-up history is not really history, and he also sensationally ends his article asking, "Those who profit from violence on television are rightly being denounced; what of those who deliberately do violence to the truth about what really happened?"  A worthwhile article to read for students viewing or writing on the film.

Simon, John.  "Nixon."  National Review 12 Feb. 1996: 57-58.
Simon does not find the multiple faces of President Nixon in the film an example of "creative ambiguity, where the filmmaker sees all sides of a man and presents him in the paradoxical but total round."  Instead, Simon sees Stone as vacillating and inconsistent, trying to present Nixon in too many ways.  Simon's biggest complaint seems to be that the actors do not look like the characters they are playing, except for David Paymer as Ron Zeigler and Joan Allen as Pat Nixon.  The usual critique of the film -- portraying Nixon as a tragic hero -- and the usual petty critiques of Stone's motives.

Sterritt, David.  "Nixon."  Christian Science Monitor 20 Dec. 1995: 14.
"The new picture is calmer, more contemplative, even a bit more melancholy in its portrait of an aspiring world-changer whose bravest plans are forever undercut by deep-lying personality flaws."  Sterritt compares Nixon to JFK and describes the latter as merely a "warmup for future excursions into American history as seen through his proudly irreverant eyes."  The reviewer's opinion of the film lies between two extreme emotions: contempt for it or feeling compassion for its subject.  He writes that Stone does a good job balancing Nixon's various personae but finds the director's habit of injecting himself into his subject skews the film "in the direction of synthetic drama rather than audacious 'countermyth' ."   Sterritt also writes that Nixon's political views are "wobbly," appearing to be a Hollywood liberal in his early films Talk Radio, Born on the Fourth of July, and Platoon, where he criticizes the political and military establishments, but in Natural Born Killers, he appears antiliberal since Stone is "brimming with contempt for the media and scorn for the powerless members of society." Sterritt concludes that Stone's ideological oscillations "suggest that he's more interested than illuminated when it comes to political matters."

Travers, Peter.  "Nixon."  Rolling Stone 25 Jan. 1996: 63-64.
"Is the film hinting that all Nixon needed was a hug?"  Travers warns us, "just don't confuse Nixon with history."  Travers criticizes the published script (see Sources) as a "slick trick...a hodgepodge gussied up as scholarship."  He dislikes Stone's use of Anthony Summers' Official and Confidential: The Secret Life of J. Edgar Hoover as a resource for the film, because it allows Stone to resort to "his usual gay bashing."  Travers calls Hopkins' performance "towering" but "a bum impersonation," and adds that Stone is still a "provocateur in a film industry of sellouts and sequel makers," but it would be better if he stuck closer to the historical record.  He adds that like Nixon, of whose truth-telling abilities Truman said he'd have very little to say, Stone would not be able to accomplish much in his films without dramatic embellishment.

Wall, James M.  "Nixon." Christian Century 24 Jan. 1996: 67.
Wall votes Nixon as his third favorite film of 1995 and declares Stone's "occasional license with facts" inconsequential since the work is not meant to be a documentary.
 

Additional Reviews:

Kauffmann, Stanley.  "Nixon."  New Republic 22 Jan. 1996: 26-27.

Maslin, Janet.  "Nixon."  New York Times 20 Dec. 1995: B1.

Morgenstern, Joe.  "Nixon."  Wall Street Journal 21 Dec. 1995: A10.
 
 

Copyright (c) 2004 Mehnaz Ara Choudhury, Presidential Scholar at Lehigh University.

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