Alleva, Richard, Commonweal
Nixon may not be the last word on the thirty-seventh president, but it is the ultimate Oliver Stone movie. The nature of the filmmaker is here, undistilled: the paranoia, the pretentiousness, the simple-minded views of recent American history and institutions, the spasmodic flashes of real talent, the shrewdness in selecting and directing actors, and--above all--the unbounded confidence of the man as he tries to explain all the historical convulsions of the last three decades by evoking the Fu Manchu nefariousness of a few organizations, as if Sax Rohmer or Ian Fleming had undertaken the task of an Arnold Toynbee.
Paranoia is both Stone's fuel and the gift he seeks to bestow on the public. His Nixon may be a mover and shaker but he is, first and last, a victim. A victim first of his own past--family background, era, economic origin, etc.--but also a victim of ... Them. And who are Them? The usual suspects: the C.I.A., evil Texas billionaires, the F.B.I., the mafia, anti-Castro Cubans. Stone just barely distinguishes among them and seems to feel that they work, if not together, on the same projects and toward the same goals.
Nevertheless, it is the C.I.A. that bears the brunt of Nixon's slurred but all-encompassing J'accuse. Early in the film, H.R. Haldeman, reporting to his boss about the burglars who have broken into the Watergate complex, mentions that E. Howard Hunt leads them. Nixon blanches. "You know Hunt, sir?" asks John Dean. Oh boy, does he ever! Not with Nixon's consent but with his unresisting knowledge, the C.I.A., to put and keep a Republican in the White House, seems to have effected every violent change in American politics throughout the sixties and seventies: the assassinations of the Kennedy brothers and King, the shooting of George Wallace. I write "seems" because Stone never really pins down just what the C.I.A did or whom it worked with or just how much was connived at by other organizations working with or against the C.I.A. Since he obviously doesn't have any hard evidence against anyone, Stone operates through cinematic innuendo. Let J. Edgar Hoover raise a sinister eyebrow and we cut to some headline announcing an assassination. Evil Texas millionaires exchange conspiratorial looks as the Kennedy presidential plane lands in Dallas. A news clip of Teddy Kennedy walking out of the Chappaquiddick inquest is nestled within a volley of shots of E. Howard Hunt or some other agent slinking off into the night fog.
I must confess that I'm writing phrases such as "some headline" and "Hunt or some other agent" because, after only one viewing, I'm not sure I'm pairing innuendoes with political events correctly y. How could I be? 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, and this may be why Stone is generally despised by serious political journalists, especially the liberal ones. 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.
But there is more to this movie than all the above, and it is this something more that makes it one of Stone's better efforts. The film isn't just a promoter of paranoia in the viewer but also a portrayal of paranoia in its protagonist. On this level, it's a pretty good show. There really is a Nixon in Nixon.
The collaboration (I almost wrote "conspiracy" between Stone and Anthony Hopkins is a unique one. Using flashbacks to Nixon's past and quick excursions into his dreams, the writer-director seems to be creating a cinematic essay explaining why Nixon's body looks and moves the way it does: a half-unstrung marionette prowling to kill the puppet-master, or Ed Sullivan on a bad mescaline trip. …