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NIXON
Election Year Edition

Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: Anthony Hopkins, Joan Allen, Powers Boothe, Ed Harris, Bob Hoskins, E.G. Marshall, David Paymer, David Hyde Pierce, Paul Sorvino, Mary Steenburgen, J.T. Walsh, James Woods
Director: Oliver Stone
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.40:1
Studio: Hollywood
Features: See Review
Length: 213 Minutes
Release Date: August 19, 2008

“When they look at you, they see what they want to be. When they look at me, they see what they are.”

Film ****

Oliver Stone’s filmmaking career was on an incredible roll during the 90s. It was in that decade where the bulk of his boldest and most incredible work was showcased, among them The Doors, JFK, Natural Born Killers and Any Given Sunday. The resume speaks for itself.

And anyone who’s familiar with Stone knows that he was never afraid to touch nerves and ignite controversy. He did just that when making JFK, where his personal opinion of what led to the Kennedy assassination infuriated many. What it resulted in, for me at least, was the director’s signature masterpiece.

Then came Natural Born Killers in 1994, which seemed to light up a firestorm around the world at the time of its release. Stone’s take on mass murderers and the media remains his most controversial film to date. I admire the film incredibly, and yet every time I watch it I feel the need to take a daylong shower afterward.

The following year, Stone would return to shake our political history. This time around, he would turn his focus to the life of President Richard Milhous Nixon. Critically hailed but largely ignored at the box office, Nixon is unquestionably the most underrated film of Stone’s career.

“You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore.”

And yet, I remember wanting to reject it when I first saw the trailer in theaters. I thought to myself, “Is Oliver going to make a three hour plus political film every few years now?” But being an admirer of the man behind the camera, I had to see it…and as a result, I’m glad I never did reject it.

Like JFK, Stone does take various liberties with history in order to tell his view of the deeply complicated 37th President of the United States. Knowing that Stone is the director, critics of him and numerous protesters of the film expected it to be a one sided, anti-Nixon bash fest focusing on all things Watergate. I can only hope that those very critics actually saw the film, where they would find the depiction of Nixon is as complex as the man himself.

The casting of Anthony Hopkins in the title role has to go on record as one of the most glorious cases of unlikely casting of the century. You take one look at Hopkins, then get an image of Nixon, and the equation shouldn’t add up. Does Hopkins resemble him? No, but that didn’t prevent him from BECOMING Nixon and delivering one the most dynamic performances of the past decade, which did in fact result in a nomination for Best Actor.

The film’s somewhat fractured narrative is one of the things I find so incredibly fascinating about the movie. We open in on the Watergate break in, followed soon by a downtrodden Nixon days before his resignation, then we jump back a year or two earlier to a key conversation in the Oval Office between Nixon and his staff. Through this jumbled storytelling, Stone has done a magnificent job of hooking the viewer in for what will end up being an unforgettable three and a half hour film, which is actually Stone’s extended cut.

“Presidents don’t threaten, Jack. They don’t have to.”

Stone also makes a bold movie by incorporating moments from Nixon’s childhood, shot completely in black and white. We see a young Nixon growing up in a most religious upbringing on his father’s lemon ranch in Whittier, California in the late 20s. It shows a side of Nixon we have rarely seen. Before this film, I had no idea he had a younger and older brother who both died from tuberculosis.

While the movie makes no apologies for Nixon’s actions, it does illustrate some plausible reasons why Nixon fell from grace. The film does hold him accountable for the disgrace he brought to the Oval Office, but at the same time it paints a portrait of a man haunted by countless demons from his past, which could’ve very much played a part in his doomed presidency.

We get some fascinating episodes during Nixon’s time as President, all handled and presented in riveting form by Stone. We see the effects of letting the Vietnam War rage on, as well as Nixon coming face to face with war protesters, before eventually ending the war. His relationship with the CIA is also examined, as are the pressures he faced in the aftermath of the Pentagon Papers being leaked.

And, as expected, we delve into everything having to do with Watergate. This is definitely the meat of the story, and no matter how much Stone has fictionalized to satisfy his personal vision, each and every detail examined in this portion of Nixon’s presidency is downright invigorating. And Stone makes a grand artistic statement when we clearly see that the infamous 18 and ˝ minute gap in the Watergate tapes represents a dark secret in Nixon’s soul.

“They can’t impeach me for bombing Cambodia. The President can bomb anybody he likes.”

I could go on and on about why this particular film is a marvel, mostly because it’s a lengthy film with endless details to spare. However, it’s one of the few three-hour plus movies that I could watch at any given moment and stay engrossed until the final frame. But what I’d like to focus on, because so many reviews ignored to make mention of it, is what a magnificent piece of filmmaking Nixon really is.

With Nixon, Oliver Stone is firing on all cylinders as a true master filmmaker. I love his editing style, which is similar to the style done in JFK (occasional flashy cuts, black & white bits, etc.), which adds juice and suspense to the proceedings. And the film looks fantastic; proving once and for all that if you want your movie to look incredible, hire Robert Richardson as your cinematographer. Richardson’s eye makes just about every image stick.

Man, talk about a riveting theatrical music score. I’ve always adhered to the belief that John Williams creates his most powerful work even not composing for a Steven Spielberg, and his Oscar nominated score for Nixon is a perfect example. Following Williams’ work on both Stone’s Born on the Fourth of July and JFK, that is really saying something.

And I haven’t even gotten around to the amazing supporting cast. For this film, Stone assembled perhaps his most stunning lineup of famous faces yet, and every actor brings their A game to their role. In addition to the mesmerizing Hopkins, there’s Joan Allen’s equally fantastic, and oscar nominated, performance as wife Pat Nixon. And there’s amazing work from Paul Sorvino as Henry Kissinger, Powers Boothe as Alexander Haig, Ed Harris as E. Howard Hunt, and James Woods as H.R. Haldeman. Lastly, the recreation of Nixon’s farewell address over the end credits is one of the greatest closing moments in any film I’ve ever seen.

“Always remember: others may hate you. But those who hate you don't win unless you hate them. And then you destroy yourself.”

Nixon, in my honest opinion, has been and will always be one of the greatest films of the 90s, along with JFK. I also find it to be the Citizen Kane of President Biopics. For Oliver Stone, it represents another monumental mark in his filmmaking career. Whether he succeeds or fails with his films, Stone is a filmmaker whose work will never bore and will always engage. This is without question an all around success.

Video ****

I can’t put into words how happy I was when I heard there was going to be a re-issue of this movie on DVD. Up until now, I’ve had to watch this film in a non-anamorphic picture. Now, I have the pleasure of experiencing the film in all its anamorphic glory, and this release from Hollywood/Buena Vista is a remarkable upgrade in the picture department. All the grain in the previous release is gone, and what we get here is an astounding looking and restored image, complete with a sharp picture and magnificent colors, beautifully enhancing Robert Richardson’s cinematography. Even when the film stock switches to brief black and white, the picture remains stunning.

Audio ****

The only downside of this re-issue is that it’s missing the DTS track from the previous release. But the 5.1 mix still manages to deliver just as great an impact. There’s nothing like hearing John Williams’ score playing in the background, which is for nearly the entire film and sounds as phenomenal as ever. Any Oliver Stone movie comes with technical tricks that add quite a bit to the soundtrack, and this is no exception. A lively sounding presentation from beginning to end!

Features ***1/2

For this new 2-Disc Election Year Edition, we mainly get the bonuses carried over from the previous Collector’s Edition release. We get two commentary tracks from Oliver Stone himself, who clearly has a lot to say about this film and is always an engaging commentator. There’s also Deleted Scenes with an introduction by Stone, a fantastic Charlie Rose interview segment and the Theatrical Trailer, which is one of the best ones ever put together. The new extra on this release is a brand new and most fascinating documentary titled “Beyond Nixon” which was put together by none other than Oliver’s son, Sean Stone.

Summary:

Oliver Stone will always be an acquired taste for some, so I’m aware that I’m limited in how many of those I can recommend this film to. All I can tell you is that if have yet to experience Nixon, now is the best time ever to do it. This new Election Year Edition has the film in its finest presentation yet, and demands to be seen by those who appreciate true bold filmmaking!

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