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Stoning Nixon

Anthony Hopkins survives Oliver Stone's heavy-handed direction in 'Nixon'

By Richard von Busack

First it was Jimmy Hoffa; last year, it was Ty Cobb; this year, it's Richard Nixon. I shudder to think what brass-balled scoundrel they're going to honor with a bio-pic next. Many of you in readerland will have been born too late to remember the Nixon resignation; I was 16 myself on that day in August 1974. Strangers greeted strangers and shared wisecracks; even the bus driver was smiling. It was a very happy day indeed.

Nixon had the last laugh, living long enough to see himself justified and rehabilitated. Oliver Stone's very long new film, Nixon, is part of that rehabilitation, and though Stone has made blancmange out of many another celebrated man's life, Nixon is neither as endless as JFK nor as noxious as Natural Born Killers.

The wild tale of Tricky Dicky and his delightful crew is such a good one that I doubt even Stone could harm it. Anthony Hopkins, who has done for the terminally crestfallen what Lassie has done for collies, turns out to be a natural for the part.

Watch as Stone digs up lovable things about Nixon: He played the piano, his daughters adored him, he didn't cheat on his wife. The cinematic spectacle of Nixon's crackup is every bit as gratifying as it was in real life, and Stone illustrates the process with the restraint that's made him famous. Snarling out "Cocksucker!" like Linda Blair in The Exorcist; stymied by the goddamn child-proof cap of his pain medicine; cradling a ketchup bottle in the White House kitchen--this is the Nixon we knew and loved.

Better still is Joan Allen as that genuinely tragic figure, Pat Nixon. Allen gives a great performance, all done with her eyes and a frozen mouth. After a while, I kept thinking of Edith Scob's immortal role as the plastic-masked woman in The Eyes Without a Face. James Woods' buzzcut H.R. Haldeman is no slouch either, with much more of the rat-in-heat political passion that marked the Dick's real life--a passion that Stone glosses up.


Ski Nose and Buzz Cut: Anthony Hopkins (left) and James Woods as Nixon and Haldeman

Visually dense beyond the point of distraction, Nixon is not as easy to watch as the individual performances. The It's A Mad Mad Mad Mad World approach to history that Stone favors makes for tableaux that never pay off. It's one thing to get Bob Hoskins to play J. Edgar Hoover as a cynical homosexual; it's another to find something for him to do. The same is true for fine celebrity cameos by Edward Herrmann, uncannily like Nelson Rockefeller, and Madeleine Kahn as good old Martha Mitchell.

On the bright side, Stone doesn't lie too much about history this time, contenting himself with hiring Larry Hagman to play an evil Texas millionaire named "Jack Jones" who had John F. Kennedy shot, and supposedly blackmailed Nixon with his complicity in the assassination. It's one thing Nixon hasn't been accused of previously, but think of everything we didn't catch him at.

The dynamic that Stone looks for in Nixon is what resulted from the "darkness rising out of the darkness," the monster Nixon could never control, namely, his unexamined life and the corrupt system that broke him. As always, Stone's profligacy of images combines with a barren simplicity of ideas (Nixon's mom didn't love him enough) to produce the sprawl that typifies his films.

There are excellent reasons for not burying Nixon's faults with him, and to celebrate his forced resignation as a victory for the nation, instead of as the tragedy of a great man. Still, America, with its insistence on innocence, is the only nation on the globe that wishes it was stupider. Hopkins, from a less innocent country than ours, is sly and subversive, and he makes the movie worth watching if you have the necessary patience.

People miss Nixon because he was such a terrible liar; he groaned under the weight of his conscience and all but broke out in hives when he had to fib. The newer-model liars are much cooler under stress. With luck, Nixon's fall may be a warning to them, even if it has become ancient history only 20 years later.

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From the Dec. 21-27, 1995 issue of Metro

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