A Splintered Vision of America

By Gentry, Ric | American Cinematographer, March 1996 | Go to article overview

A Splintered Vision of America


Gentry, Ric, American Cinematographer


The groundbreaking collaboration between director Oliver Stone and cinematographer Robert Richardson, ASC continues with Nixon, a biography as compelling and challenging as its subject.

"WHAT LINKS ALL MY FILMS," begins director Oliver Stone, "is the story of an individual in a struggle with his identity, his integrity and his soul. In many of these movies, the character's soul is stolen from him, lost, and in some cases he gets it back in the end. I believe the highest ethic is the Socratic one, which says, 'Know thyself.'"

In one of the most powerful scenes in Nixon, Stone's epic biography of the 37th President of the United States and his 12th film as a director, the beleaguered chief executive (Anthony Hopkins) beckons Secretary of State Henry Kissinger (Paul Sorvino) to kneel with him in prayer on the Oval Office floor the night before he will announce his resignation from office - rather than forfeit the tapes that will incriminate him in the Watergate quagmire. Leaning forward, Nixon breaks down into a torrent of gut-wrenching sobs and wails. If at that moment his soul has not been lost, then surely this man has failed to sufficiently study himself.

Played out along a timeline that spans a substantial stretch of 20th Century U.S. history - the Depression, World War II, the Communist witch hunts, the Cold War, Vietnam, the civil rights struggle - the film, in examining Nixon, also probes the country that produced him. "The movie is a prism through which we might also see ourselves," the director submits.

For Stone, Nixon is thus familiar territory, an epic take on America, intricate in its psychology and rife with grand themes that culminate in a fall as thunderous as those of Shakespeare's tragic kings. "I've been fracturing [the nature of] biography for a long time now," he says, "but this [picture] is the most complex in terms of structure, going back and forth with time. The first hour and a half basically provides the antecedents of the man, the threads of his personality: poverty, class tension, Quakerism, death, bitterness - also, we must not forget, great idealism, invoked by his mother. But Nixon's idealism is more image than reality."

Whereas pundits have been prompt to consider the introspective tone of Nixon as a change in sensibility for Stone, the style is really a matter of adapting his technique to the nature of the material. His last film, Natural Born Killers, a satire on the mass media that offered both run-and-gun on-location immediacy and hallucinatory distortion, is virtually the tonal antithesis of Nixon, but this difference only underscores Stone's uncanny command of the medium. As on his previous nine films, Stone was aided by the visual brilliance of director of photography Robert Richardson, ASC, who returned to the director's side after shooting Casino for Martin Scorsese (see AC November '95).

The Stone-Richardson teaming has blossomed into one of film's most important and innovative collaborations. In addition to crafting works of visual beauty and power, the duo has detonated the traditional boundaries of cinematic language for feature films. Not surprisingly, both compare their longstanding friendship and collaboration, which began with Salvador in 1986, to a marriage.

"We know each other like a husband and wife do," Stone attests. "We fight. We disagree. But it doesn't get so emotional that we lose our bond. It was something we felt right from the beginning. It was one of those situations where someone walks into the room and you just know that he's going to be connected to you in this life."

"The long-term friendship creates a strong article of faith," Richardson points out. "It can get tough at times. I've been married for 10 years and that's been tough at times, too. But it's also as fulfilling as [a relationship] can get. It's like that with Oliver. It won't get any better."

Nixon, as it turned out, would at times test the limits of both their bond and their creative powers. …

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