Director Oliver Stone brings us a film about the 37th president of the United States, Richard Milhous Nixon (Sir Anthony Hopkins), and his wife, Pat Nixon (Joan Allen). The film begins with the Watergate burglary, where five intruders are discovered in the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee, photographing documents and adjusting wire taps. The Watergate scandal ultimately forced Nixon to resign from his office (under threat of impeachment), and the film proceeds to utlilize montages, documentary footage, and flashbacks to create a sympathetic portrait of a leader whom many remember as anything but great.
The film flashbacks from the Watergate burglary and a damage control meeting (where the President tells his aides to "pay off" one of the burglars) to his early career -- ranging from his involvement in the House UnAmerican Activities Committee (HUAC) and his semi-meteoric rise in the political arena as Dwight Eisenhower's vice-presidential running mate to his subsequent defeat by John Kennedy in the 1960 presidential election. The film also flashbacks to his childhood in Yorba Linda, California, and shows Nixon as the product of a hard-working but oppressive father and a stern mother. The close-knit Quaker family is plagued by health problems -- Nixon's brothers all suffered from tuberculosis -- and this, coupled with financial problems, seems to provide the drive for him to excel at school and later in his career. Stone also recreates President Nixon's courtship with Pat in a few brief scenes, but the film suggests that the relationship was strained by Nixon's personal and public demons and that Pat developed alcoholic tendencies.
In the aftermath of the burglary, John Dean (David Hyde Pierce), Nixon's legal aide, is shown going to the investigation committee with information regarding several "cover-ups," two of Nixon's closest associates Bob Haldeman and John Ehrlichman resign or are pressured out (the film does point towards the latter), and it is revealed that the President has been taping every conversation he has had in the White House, including personal ones. Domestic troubles increase as President Nixon and Pat fight about what is on the tapes, and, as the Watergate scandal grows larger, Nixon collapses and is sent to the hospital with pneumonia and phlebitis. The fight over the tapes exposes an 18-minute gap on one of the more important conversations, and in flashback we see Nixon erasing the tape as he hallucinates that his mother is witness to this wrong-doing. After a conversation with Henry Kissinger, Alexander Haig, and a loving moment with Pat, Nixon accepts the fact he will have to resign, since the House Judiciary Committee will suggest impeachment. The film ends with Nixon delivering his last speech to a throng of reporters, with "footage" of him walking with Pat to a waiting helicopter, and with shots of his funeral and Bill Clinton delivering a eulogy, interpersed with shots of the young filmic Nixon and his parents.
One of Stone's most compelling and well-executed dramas, the film is not without its controversy -- mainly because of several conspiracies in which the director suggests Nixon was involved. The film alleges that Nixon, while vice-president under Eisenhower, participated in an assassination plot against Cuban dictator Fidel Castro and was also involved in the deaths of President John F. Kennedy and his brother, Robert. One of Stone's numerous theses is that the missing 18-minute gap on the tape refers to Nixon's involvement in the Cuban conspiracies, including the Bay of Pigs invasion, since the surrounding conversation continually refers to "the Cuban thing."
Copyright (c) 2004 Mehnaz Ara Choudhury, Presidential Scholar at Lehigh University.
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