On the heels of his controversial JFK (1991), director, Oliver Stone tackled an even more ambitious, and, unfairly maligned presidency, with Nixon (1995); at times, critical, though, arguably a fair and intermittently compassionate likeness of an extremely complicated individual and his impact on the American political landscape. In the years since Watergate, the game of politics has grown uglier and more ruthless, Richard Nixon becoming a celebrated piñata for the liberal left to bash at will and whim with affected glee; the highest office in the land tainted by a third-rate burglary. And yet, spying has been almost a prerequisite of politics since its inception. Would it make the ‘liberal left’ cheer as loudly – if at all – to recall such deities from their camp as F.D.R., J.F.K. and current President, Barak Obama are guilty of similar offenses? But back to Richard Milhous Nixon: am I defending the man or his methods? Certainly not – and there is little to deny if Nixon had it to do all over again he likely would not have endorsed, then feigned zero culpability for the disastrous break-in at the Democratic headquarters in Washington. Miraculously, Oliver Stone casts no aspersions on Nixon – the man. Nor does he shield him from his failings, both as a President and as a human being.
I suspect the chief difficulty most critics had with Nixon – the movie – is that it wasn’t JFK. There is no ‘Magic Bullet’ theory to debunk, no assassination coup to resolve, no mystery being explored this time around. Or is this entirely true? For Nixon was as complex an enigma if ever one held public office. His resignation in the face of almost certain impeachment created a stain on the presidency unlike anything before or since. It also left a perpetual bullseye on Nixon’s back for the rest of his life and far too many unanswered – or perhaps, unanswerable questions. Why, for example, install tape-recording devices in the White House if what was being recorded was never meant to leave 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.? Could the President truly have been so naïve or hell-bent on ego he failed to see how anything discussed, even casually and unrelated to matters of ‘national security’, could – and would – be misconstrued by the mainstream press and his political opponents as clandestine plotting? And who tipped off security at the Watergate Hotel about Howard Hunt and his cronies burglarizing the Democratic offices? No, those who would dismiss Watergate and Nixon as mere addendums – nee, blemishes – in history, as inescapably painful as Kennedy’s thought-numbing assassination on some level - though for different reasons, eventually incurring anger in place of remorse – would have overlooked a fundamental truth about Richard Nixon that Oliver Stone exposes with his inimitable clairvoyance as investigatory pseudo-history; that Nixon could never be quantified or dismissed as a mere embarrassment, if for no other reason, than much of what he had put into place during his presidency has since given rise to an era in politics appropriately known as ‘the age of Nixon’ with consequences and fallout far-reaching within the political machinery to this very day.
Nixon – the movie – is a fascinating, ambitious, probative and ultimately heart-breaking critique of an equally as flawed, passionate, and, single-minded political creature. No one can – or should – chide Nixon on his accomplishments in foreign affairs. Yet, he constantly lived in the shadow of Jack Kennedy and, increasingly, allowed self-doubt, fear and pity to color his political thinking. For this, and other indiscretions unearthed in Stone’s brilliantly conceived film, Richard Nixon paid the ultimate price; sacrificing his reputation and opening himself up to endless public humiliation, effectively to shatter whatever legacy remained. Ultimately, it also broke the man down to bedrock. Even today, generations of Americans misguidedly regard the Nixon presidency as little more than a national discomfiture and a very sad epitaph to a man who ‘had greatness within his grasp’, only to be emasculated and watch it all slip away. And yet, in his emeritus years, Nixon rose like a phoenix from these ashes to become Washington’s honorary – if closeted – statesman to whom virtually every president since his time, until his death in 1994, consulted for advice on international diplomacy. There is no denying his prowess as a political strategist. Few presidents have had more raw instinct and moxie than Richard Nixon.
And praise too, to Nixon’s formidable achievements in foreign policy, working closely with Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger to bypass all the ‘red tape’ and improve relations with both China and the Soviet Union; in the process, heralding a new era of Sino-American relations. Indeed, Nixon shocked the nation with the announcement he would visit communist China in the winter of 1972. In a spirit of ‘full disclosure’, publicly Nixon used TV to bring this message of diplomacy to light. In private, it immensely pleased him to deny print journalists similar access to his agenda. Indeed, the then reigning mandarins in print media had had it in for Richard Nixon even before his presidency, and would continue to unapologetically, and without much integrity to their own canon of journalistic ethics, spew open contempt for the man and his methods. Nixon’s detractors would be the first to pounce on his record in Vietnam, a quagmire that, but for an untimely Presidential assassination, would have been Kennedy’s cross to bear. Instead, Nixon was chronically blamed for the staggering 300 American G.I. deaths per week. While Nixon abhorred the protestors against America’s involvement in the war, regarding them as slovenly and disrespectful, he nevertheless made the impromptu effort to engage a contingent of these same draft dodgers and hippies, who viewed him as a virtual anathema to their message of free love and flower-powered peace, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
Many also forget Nixon’s secret bombing campaign of the North Vietnamese in Cambodia (a campaign that, by some accounts dropped more bombs than the Allies did during WWII) was an extension of a policy already begun under Lyndon Johnson; Nixon hardly its architect, and also, for a brief moment thereafter, championed as a ‘bold, decisive move’ by the Wall Street Journal and Washington Post. In hindsight, which is always 20/20, it is far too easy to simply condemn Richard Nixon for following this ensconced protocol of his era, rather than going his own way – as though, it were that easy to reroute the direction of international affairs with the wave of a hand. And Nixon was not easily swayed, and could be intractable, particularly when forced into a corner; a personal failing that would crest during the Watergate incident. But in response to the floodgates of protest at home, Nixon did attempt to broker a peace between South and North Vietnam, gradually replacing the U.S. military with a North Vietnamese presence. To some extent, the first crack in the Nixon presidency was the publication of the leaked ‘Pentagon Papers’ – detailing a web of deceit spun primarily by prior administrations and providing a timeline for the U.S.’s involvement in Vietnam. Convinced by Kissinger the leak was harmful to his own presidency, Nixon tried to suppress their publication in the New York Times and Washington Post, but was overruled by the Supreme Court – the inference being, Nixon had something else to hide. The press had a field day. What other secrets was the President hiding under the guise of ‘national security’?
At the same instance, another part of Nixon’s past continued to haunt his present; his backing President Kennedy’s decision to initiate 1961’s Bay of Pigs; also, his support during 1962’s Cuban Missile Crisis. In truth, the Soviets sincerely feared Nixon would jeopardize this tentative peace established by Kennedy and Kurshchev. And yet, it can almost safely be said Nixon, while loyal to the Cuban exiles community, always had his eye on the grander positioning of America’s supremacy on the world stage. Therefore, another potentially crippling crisis in Cuba was not worthy of his time or efforts. Instead, Nixon sought to escalate his negotiations with the Soviets on nuclear disarmament, out of which two landmark ‘arms control’ treaties were signed. Meanwhile, in the Middle East, Nixon avoided direct U.S. combat assistance, while greatly increasing arms sales to Israel, Iran and Saudi Arabia. As a direct result, the Arab coalition attacked Israel and Nixon ordered an airlift to resupply Israeli casualties, taking personal responsibility for the fiasco. In the famed superpower crisis that grew out of this incident, Nixon engaged in a somewhat dangerous game of chicken with the Soviets, resulting in Soviet leader, Brezhnev eventually backing down.
I may seem to be delving too deeply into history for ‘art’s sake’, but it often becomes an occupational hazard when discussing Oliver Stone’s movies; particularly those dedicated to two of the most high-profile American presidents in U.S. history. And Stone, while touching upon virtually all of the aforementioned snafus swirling around the Nixon White House, is rather disinterested – at least directly – in their politicized outcomes and fallout; instead, intensely focused on the personal consequences impacting the man making these heady decisions. Nixon is about the man, the genuineness of his sacrifices and his absorbingly fatal flaws that make him all too fallible and easily ascribable as one of history’s most notorious scapegoats. Nixon’s triumphs have been all but eclipsed by Watergate; Stone addressing the scandal head on, though not necessarily as the story’s centerpiece or focus; rather, using Watergate as bookends to regress the audience into the not too distant past; the impoverished boy of a green grocer from Whittier, California, who toughs out the loss of two brothers to tuberculosis, and, arguably, lives in the shadow of his mother’s stringent piety with the constant belief he has failed to live up to her Quaker principles in the political arena.
If only Nixon had been a hit with audiences, we might have had more politically-driven masterpieces from Oliver Stone. Indeed, in tone alone, Nixon is superbly evocative and engrossing as a classic Median tragedy. Alas, and despite a big marketing push, the film only took in a paltry $2.2 million in 514 theaters on its opening weekend – an embarrassing gross by any barometer; its final tally of $13.6 million falling well below the $44 million it cost to produce. As with JFK, controversy dogged Nixon almost from its inception; although, unlike JFK, the negative press did not convince the public to run out and see the picture. Stone was heavily chastised for representing both the President and Pat Nixon as chronic alcoholics; Nixon, also shown abusing prescription medications; incidents Stone based on research acquired from a book co-written by Stephen Ambrose, Fawn Brodie, and Tom Wicker. The Nixon family also took umbrage to Stone’s insinuation Nixon’s private life was a shambles almost from birth; a man who, through a series of middle-age reflections, suffers from crippling bouts of paranoia, tinged with Oedipal anxieties. For his part, Stone defended his movie, claiming it was never meant as a definitive statement and/or history on either the man or his presidency; rather, “a basis to start reading…investigating on your own.”
If any criticism can be ascribed Nixon – the movie, it squarely rests on Anthony Hopkins’ performance; problematic and unconvincing at best. Full of hunched posturing, too manic and insincerely prone to mimicry, it neither effectively captures the timbre of Nixon’s baritone nor his mannerisms as anything better than hackneyed affectations, nor does it transcend the iconography of Nixon – as characterization – into to a solid piece of ‘movie acting’ beyond the psycho-manic highs and depressively subjective lows. In retrospect, it is no real surprise to learn Hopkins felt ill at ease almost from the moment his signature had dried on the contract; his own anxieties boiling over after co-star, Paul Sorvino reportedly told Hopkins he was “doing the whole thing wrong”, that “…there was room for improvement” but that he - Sorvino – was precisely the pro to pull Hopkins’ proverbial bacon out of the fire. To cull Hopkins fears, Oliver Stone cajoled, complimented and eventually convinced his star to stay the course – a misfire from which Nixon arguably never recovers.
I adore Anthony Hopkins. But Nixon is decidedly not his finest hour; regrettably so, since any appreciation for this carefully-crafted non-linear political epic is inextricably derived from our ability to buy into Hopkins reincarnation. As this becomes increasingly difficult to digest, we are left to the satisfaction gleaned from the movie’s awe-inspiring roster of supporting players; some more successful at aping their counterparts; the most exquisite of the lot, Joan Allen’s Pat Nixon, and, Paul Sorvino’s chillingly on point recreation of Henry Kissinger. There are others who do their part; Bob Hopkins – a wily and grumbling, J. Edgar Hoover; Sam Waterson – foreboding, as CIA director, Richard Helms, Powers Boothe (a very stoic, Alexander Haig), David Hyde Pierce (congenial as attorney to the President, John Dean), and, James Woods, forgoing his usual afflictions as a fairly credible, H.R. Haldeman. But these are reoccurring cameos at best; undeniably, solidly crafted, though subservient and often left dangling about the Nixonian mobile of political intrigues that form the centerpiece of Stone’s exposé.
Nixon went through an arduous incubation period. Former speechwriter and staff member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Eric Hamburg pitched the idea to screenwriter, Stephen J. Rivele, and, Oliver Stone simultaneously. At the time, Stone was busy developing two other projects: a movie version of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Evita and his own biopic about Panamanian dictator, Manuel Noriega. When Stone could find no funding for either project, he turned his attentions to Nixon, initiating a pitch to Warner Bros. Eventually, Hollywood Pictures – a subsidiary of the Walt Disney Co. – would take over, fund and distribute the movie, resulting in yet another obstruction. It seems Stone had agreed to a three picture deal with Regency Enterprises under producer, Arnon Michan. Stone would eventually deliver three movies as promised to Regency; JFK, Heaven and Earth and Natural Born Killers. On the success of ‘Killers’ alone, Milchan renegotiated Stone’s commitment so that he owed an additional three pictures (four in total). Regrettably, Milchan showed little interest in Nixon. Reneging on his promise to commit to any Oliver Stone movie under $42.5 million, Milchan now agreed to finance Nixon up to $35 million. Rather than debate the point, Stone simply chose to shop the project to Hungarian financier, Andrew G. Vajna and Cinergi Pictures who, along with Disney Inc. agreed to put up the necessary $43 million. With egg on his face, Milchan threatened to sue for breach of contract. He would later withdraw, but only after Stone reportedly paid him off.
Meanwhile, Stephen J. Rivele and his collaborator, Christopher Wilkinson hammered out the details in this high-stakes drama, with Oliver Stone helping to infuse a more ominous undercurrent; the President gradually becoming subservient to the dictates of secret money men and the military-industrial complex: a ‘system’ comprised of unseen corporate and state-sanctioned rogue elements, manipulating the political process with the complicity of the media in order to protect the status quo and its ownership; a system that, by design, Stone clearly saw as “…grind(ing) the individual down.” During pre-production, Stone flew to Washington to interview surviving members of Nixon’s inner circle, including lawyer Leonard Garment and Attorney General, Elliot Richardson; also, Robert McNamara, a former Secretary of Defense under the Kennedy and Johnson. Stone added cache to the project by hiring Alexander Butterfield, John Sears and John Dean as his consultants. Butterfield’s involvement proved particularly fortuitous as he had been the go-between during the Watergate scandal. Stone also encouraged his actors to reach out to their flesh and blood counterparts; Powers Boothe, David Hyde Pierce and Paul Sorvino all taking Stone up on his advice to dig deeper into their characterizations. Only J.T. Walsh abstained, and only after the real John Ehrlichman threatened a lawsuit, fearing a ‘hatchet job’ was in the works. Former CIA director, Richard Helms would follow a similar path, forcing Stone to excise all of the footage featuring Sam Waterston before the movie went into theaters. Ironically, these scenes were restored for all home video releases without further incident.
Nixon opens with the Watergate burglary; E. Howard Hunt (Ed Harris) preparing his men for this third-rate burglary, destined to topple the presidency. Hunt’s cohorts include Frank Sturgis (Robert Beltran), Gordon Liddy (John Diehl), Bernard Barker (Lenny Vullo) and James McCord (Ronald von Klaussen); Oliver Stone intercutting with ‘breaking news’ reports of the scandal to expedite the particulars of the incident without giving us a blow by blow. We cut to Gen. Alexander Haig arriving at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., helping an inebriated Nixon load his reel-to-reel tape recorder; Nixon’s own words coming back to haunt him. Now, Stone regresses us to the first of many flashbacks; Nixon in a heated debate with his top White House aids, including Ehrlichman, Dean and Haldeman, who warns the president his house of cards has already begun to crumble. In times of stress, Nixon retreats into his cocoon; recalling the 1960 presidential debate with Jack Kennedy that cost him the election. Pat encourages her husband to give up his political dreams. They could be happy if only he would only concentrate on practicing law and allow them to live their lives out of the public spotlight. At one point, Pat even threatens divorce.
We regress even further into Nixon’s past; a very painful childhood in Whittier, California (Nixon intermittently played at 12 years by Corey Carrier, and, as a 19 year old college student by David Barry Gray) saddled with a stern and uncompromising patriarch, Frank (Tom Bower) and even more devoutly religious mother, Hannah (Mary Steenburgen); the family forced to endure the loss of two brothers, younger, Donald (Sean Stone) and elder, Harold (Tony Goldwyn) to tuberculosis. Nixon vows to become the pride of his family. He follows the straight and narrow. But his thirst for political conquest eventually leads him to cut corners. He becomes a member of HUAC and integral in the Elgar Hiss hearings. He shamelessly turns an IRS investigation of his personal finances into a media event to gain public support for his first stab at the White House. Alas, Nixon is chagrined by Kennedy’s undulating charisma during their televised debate. After Kennedy’s assassination, Nixon is approached by J. Edgar Hoover, who quietly suggests Bobby Kennedy will not stand in his way should he choose to run for President again. Having sworn to Pat he would officially retire from politics, Nixon slyly reenters the ring; backed by a spurious consortium of Texas money men, fronted by the mysterious ‘Jack Jones’ (Larry Hagman).
Nixon sweeps the ’69 elections; a landslide that startles his opponents. But he is unable to enjoy the appointment, growing more distant from Pat and his advisors; becoming increasingly paranoid and guarded in his decision-making processes. On several occasions, Pat reaches out to her husband, but is rebuked for these efforts; Nixon claiming the walls have ears. Nixon embarks upon his ambitious negotiations with China and the Soviet Union. Both Leonid Brezhnev and General Mao are sincerely impressed by Nixon’s chutzpah; also, his international diplomacy. Increasingly, however, Nixon is unable to keep focus on these summits; his mind diverted by an increasing disunion in the American fabric; campus riots and youth protestors picketing the White House because of his bold move to bomb Cambodia. As the Watergate scandal grows more problematic, fueled by conspiracy theories put forth in the media, Nixon discovers he is unable to maintain his composure, even toward his diehard constituents who once believed he could do no wrong. At the height of this malaise, daughter, Julie (Annabeth Gish) confronts her father with the only question that matters. Is he guilty of all the things written about him in the Washington Post? Nixon weakens, but does not break in his resolve, professing his innocence to Julie, who wholeheartedly believes in him.
Meanwhile, Howard Hunt bribes the White House for hush money – Dean confronting Hunt on a lonely bridge in an attempt to learn just how much longer he intends holding the president hostage for Watergate. Hunt warns Dean it is only a matter of time before Nixon begins cutting his losses; pointing the finger at various scapegoats to ensure the cover-up never infiltrates his own inner sanctum. Dean is reluctant to buy into Hunt’s allegations. But only a short while later, Nixon accepts Haldeman and Ehrlichman’s resignations; going on television to profess his innocence in the Watergate scandal. Dean is asked by the president to go to Camp David and put the whole incident in writing. But Dean tells Nixon he will not be his next scapegoat. Not long thereafter, Dean turns against the White House, offering full disclosure to clear his good name of all charges. Amidst the chaos, Nixon hosts several galas at the White House, including Julie’s marriage to David Eisenhower, and, a tribute to the brave soldiers who fought in Vietnam. Nixon is also led to believe Henry Kissinger is leaking top secret information to the Washington Post. Eventually, Nixon has nowhere to hide; the Post unearthing the discovery of a secret taping system in the White House. Nixon absolutely refuses to surrender his tapes to the Special Prosecutor assigned to investigate the case. He also has transcripts of these tapes heavily censored under the guise of ‘national security’. Unable to refuse handing over the tapes on legal grounds as a public figure, and facing various articles of impeachment, Nixon instead resigns. Under the law he is allowed to keep the tapes as a private citizen. As the helicopter departs from the White House front lawn, stunned onlookers quietly observe as the man they all looked to for guidance departs 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. in utter disgrace.
Nixon is so palpably Oliver Stone’s fanatical effort to get under the hood of the Nixon presidency that, at times, it does begin to take on the flavoring of a ‘caper/heist’ drama. And yet, Stone has cleverly anchored his investigation in an even more probative quest for the truth behind Richard Nixon, incorporating fact and speculation to paint a fascinating and, at times, unflattering (though I would argue) fair portrait. Gradually, Stone’s impressions of the man begin to take precedence as the movie steers us into the darkened recesses of Nixon’s soul; his desperation to keep the world at bay and whitewash his public persona in a series of ill-timed political gestures that culminate in ‘the madman theory’; roughly translated in the movie as Nixon’s callous, though ultimately effective, bombing of Cambodia that ended the Vietnam war. Alas, as Pat had predicted earlier in the movie, her husband’s unquenchable thirst for power, his failure to effectively harness and maintain it once appointed to the highest office in the land, and even more critically, his overall inability to enjoy and build upon what little popularity he occasionally gleans from the mainstream press, ultimately creates a vicious political whirlpool – some of it instigated by Nixon himself to his own detriment. This eventually swamps any chances Nixon has for the sort of legacy all presidents reach for and aspire to, though too few ultimately achieve during their tenure inside the White House.
What the movie does spectacularly well is to weave these various imperfect threads, dedicated to the man and his malaise, into an impeccably crafted tapestry of melodrama - intense, and at times, genuinely disturbing. To his pundits, Oliver Stone will always be regarded as a rank conspiracy theorist. Yet, as with JFK, in Nixon, Stone illustrates not only a passion for history, but also his copious abilities to assimilate a mountain of facts into a persuasive – if slightly fictionalized – entertainment with the impression of being a more impervious truth. Stone is marginally hampered by the fact Richard Nixon was neither heroic nor noble. Pardoned by future President Gerald Ford, Richard Nixon would go on to write several important political memoirs and be a silent advisor to many more Presidents occupying the White House in times yet to follow. The public never quite forgave him Watergate. Realistically, the media wouldn’t let them. Yet, Stone’s movie never vacillates in picking the puss from this chronically festering scab, nor is Stone similarly interested in propagating the notion Nixon was clumsily evil.
What Oliver Stone has done is to give us the first intelligent and unbiased – if speculative – portrait of Richard Nixon as a candidly faulty, occasionally injudicious, though always authentically passionate champion of the America he sought to reshape during some of its most turbulent times. To a large extent, Nixon did exactly that, not only during his presidency, but ultimately, for all time; the ripples from his time in the White House resonating long after his misfires and worthy triumphs had been laid to rest. Stone’s movie, like his subject matter, is imperfect; regrettably so. Although Stone never stumbles in his quest for quality, the integrity of the piece is hampered by Anthony Hopkins’ incapacity to grasp at a performance with anything more compelling than superficial gesticulations. Hopkins is fighting a losing battle in Nixon, his actor’s prowess utterly failing him. He delivers his lines with a sort of perpetual and extremely petulant brusqueness; his own insecurities about the part showing through. He just cannot seem to get a handle on Richard Nixon and, in lieu of peeling away the layers of the man, Hopkins falls back on a sort of grotesque mime of the personality, without ever unearthing the person hiding behind it. Arguably, the real Nixon shared such a character trait – always drawing a veil or shadow across the public image he wanted the American people to believe in as their leader. But such secrecy doesn’t bode well for Hopkins’ performance. He doesn’t allow us a hint of what’s going on inside, even if the thought processes are more himself than his alter ego. The net result is a vacuous and unfulfilling caricature that – here and there – crackles with hints of his better work to be done, but ultimately betraying Oliver Stone’s ambitious plans for a more heartfelt impression of the man.
In his final address to the nation, Nixon allowed the world to see a side of him rarely shared; the fallen, though arguably, undefeated man, stripped of his cynicism. Wisely, Oliver Stone lets Richard Nixon’s farewell address stand on its own; the president thanking all who served under his administration and would continue to diligently lead by their own examples afterward, expressing pride in the nation and accepting full responsibility for ‘mistakes’ made along the way, though never meant for personal profit. In his concluding remarks, Nixon returned, perhaps not surprisingly, to Whittier California for his most unguarded summation of what life in general - and his more particularly - had taught him, saying “I remember my old man. I think that they would have called him sort of a little man, common man…but he was a great man, because he did his job, and every job counts up to the hilt, regardless of what happens….and nobody will ever write a book, probably, about my mother. Well, I guess all of you would say this about your mother -- my mother was a saint. And I think of her, two boys dying of tuberculosis, nursing four others in order that she could take care of my older brother for three years in Arizona, and seeing each of them die, and when they died, it was like one of her own. Yes, she will have no books written about her. But she was a saint.
We think sometimes when things happen that don't go the right way; we think that when someone dear to us dies, we think that when we lose an election, we think that when we suffer a defeat that all is ended. We think…that the light had left forever. Not true. It is only a beginning, always… It must always sustain us, because the greatness comes not when things go always good for you. But the greatness comes and you are really tested, when you take some knocks, some disappointments, when sadness comes, because only if you have been in the deepest valley can you ever know how magnificent it is to be on the highest mountain…Always give your best, never get discouraged, never be petty; always remember, others may hate you, but those who hate you don't win unless you hate them, and then you destroy yourself.
And so, we leave with high hopes, in good spirit, and with deep humility, and with very much gratefulness in our hearts. I can only say to each and every one of you, we come from many faiths, we pray perhaps to different gods -- but really the same God in a sense -- but I want to say for each and every one of you, not only will we always remember you, not only will we always be grateful to you, but always you will be in our hearts and you will be in our prayers. Thank you very much.”
Nixon was released on Blu-ray in November 2012, ironically to coincide with the second presidential election of Barak Obama. The Blu-ray rectifies a myriad of sins committed on DVD and, in hindsight, seems also to have marked an end to the Walt Disney Company’s last spate of live-action catalog releases in hi-def. It’s rather sickening to consider the company that gave us so many important movies unrelated to its formidable cartoon kingdom, has all but discarded the possibilities of ever making any of these available to the public. I mean it’s 2015 and we don’t even have a proper release of the restored Bedknobs or Broomsticks as yet, the original Parent Trap, The Absent-Minded Professor, The Happiest Millionaire and, so many others (not even advertised as Disney ‘exclusives’, or, cribbing from the vast Touchstone library, an incredible assortment of ‘forgotten catalog’ with such high profile titles as Pretty Woman, Splash, Can’t Buy Me Love, Hello Again, I Love Trouble, The Horse Whisperer, While You Were Sleeping and Deuce Bigalow among the MIA. (Aside: some of these titles are available in region free offerings from Europe, but to date, most have failed to mark a debut on this side of the Atlantic!)
Nixon on Blu-ray is a vast improvement, showcasing cinematographer Robert Richardson’s vintage ‘look’; Stone utilizing both 35mm and 16mm film stocks to achieve a sort of aged Kodachrome and B&W ‘archival’ appearance, adding yet another stylization to his visual storytelling. Colors are clear and distinct if slightly muted, although I suspect this is in keeping with Stone’s approach to creating the pseudo-documentarian ‘time capsule’ impression. When Nixon had its debut on DVD no one thought to enhance the picture for widescreen televisions. The Blu-ray is, of course, utilizing all of its 1080p technology. We mercifully lose the macro-blocking, crushed blacks, video noise and edge enhancement that were decidedly not a part of the theatrical viewing experience, but plagued the DVD. The Blu-ray is exceptionally clean and satisfying. We get to choose between either a lossless PCM 5.1 sound mix or 5.1 Dolby Digital. Under ordinary circumstances the PCM would illustrate the best option.
But Nixon’s sound design has been deliberately constructed to appear flat and/or warped during its ‘vintage’ press materials. Also, it is primarily a dialogue-driven movie. There are subtle differences and improvements on the PCM, but you have to strain to notice them. For once, Disney’s penny-pinching has taken a backseat. We get a second Blu-ray showcasing nearly an hour of deleted scenes, with or without Oliver Stone’s commentary; also a half-hour ‘Beyond Nixon’ documentary that isn’t all that comprehensive, but nevertheless offers an addendum of sorts to the movie; plus the original theatrical trailer and two independent audio commentaries by Oliver Stone; intensely comprehensive and definitely worthy of a listen. Bottom line: while Nixon is not a perfect movie, too much of it is riveting entertainment. It’s not a movie you can just casually put on as background. But it does come across as an engrossing – if slightly failed – political epic, worthy of reinvestigation. Bottom line: recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)