The combination of director Oliver Stone and American politics is a highly combustible one, but it produces unarguably compelling cinema. Beginning with 1991's searing masterpiece JFK, continuing through 1995's underrated Nixon and this fall's already-controversial Dubya docudrama W., Stone excels at fusing fact, fiction and fulmination into something primal, almost alchemic. His dizzying montages of various film stocks, angles and mise en scene are enough to send all but the most dedicated cinephiles scrambling for the Tylenol, but his is a body of work that demands attention and never fails to fully reward it.
In dissecting Nixon, it's almost essential to bring JFK into the discussion. The films are very much of a piece; a sweeping examination of the heartsick paranoia and seething frustration of a key 20 year period in American history, Nixon also manages to capture the galvanic feeling that must've been inescapable as the flower children began to chip away at the last vestiges of the staid, stubborn establishment. As most historians have revealed in the various texts about Nixon, the man was obsessed with the Kennedy family and indeed, much of his own political fortunes were inextricably tied to the Massachusetts dynasty. It consumed and confounded him; the cynical might even suggest it drove him to commit acts beyond the pale of presidential conduct.
Led by Anthony Hopkins in one of his most majestic, enthralling performances, Nixon is exhausting (this director's cut clocks in at just over three and a half hours), exhilarating and eager to peer into the soul of one of America's most misunderstood presidents. It's one of the finest, most gripping biographies ever committed to film and certainly, one of the greatest films of the Nineties.
Encompassing no less than the sum of Richard Milhous Nixon's life, Stone, who co-wrote the Oscar-nominated screenplay with Stephen J. Rivele and Christopher Wilkinson, surveys his formative years under the iron grip of his Quaker mother Hannah (Mary Steenburgen) through his hard-scrabble tenure at Whittier University (David Barry Gray plays Nixon as a teen; Corey Carrier plays him as a child). It's not long before Nixon finds himself in the thick of the Communist witch hunt, making his name as the man who takes down suspected Red Alger Hiss.
With the Hiss case having secured his political future, Nixon sets his sights on higher offices, becoming vice president with Dwight Eisenhower, only to see his shot at the White House vanquished by the handsome young John F. Kennedy. After the turbulence of the Sixties and the mounting miasma known as the Vietnam War looming, Nixon seizes an opportunity to provide change, a breath of fresh air from the Democrats (Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson) who, in his jaundiced view, have thoroughly weakened the country and provided an ideal opening for the Republican Party.
Although his ambitions are to be among some of America's greatest leaders -- Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt -- and his gains with China and Russia are historic, Nixon's burning desire to level the playing field and get a leg up on the "elite" brings him low, very nearly dragging the American people and their government down with him. A murky web of shady characters fill in the background behind Nixon; it's worth noting that Stone allows up front that some -- or much -- of his narrative is comprised of hypothesis and confluence, so that scholars can't wag fingers about historical accuracy.
Having some prior knowledge of the trajectory of Nixon's public life helps greatly when coming to Stone's film, as he tends to overlay past incidents on the present tense -- he leaps from the dark hours of Watergate to the hard-scrabble life in Whittier, Calif. in the same scene; he flashes back to the "Checkers" speech as Nixon delivers his infamous "I'm not a crook" address -- and never shies away from giving an incisive overview of Nixon's interior state.
The expansive run time (the theatrical cut is a shade over three hours and this director's cut adds about 28 minutes of footage) allows Stone to make excellent use of his star-stacked cast: Joan Allen, Powers Boothe, Ed Harris, Bob Hoskins, E.G. Marshall, David Paymer, David Hyde Pierce, Paul Sorvino, J.T. Walsh, James Woods, Kevin Dunn, Larry Hagman, Dan Hedaya, John Diehl, Madeline Kahn and Fyvush Finkel all excel in roles large and small, although no one -- save Allen, who was nominated for an Oscar for her work as Pat Nixon -- comes anywhere close to matching Hopkins' also Oscar-nominated, searing turn as Nixon. It's a magnetic piece of acting that holds the entire work together; any misgivings viewers might have about a British stage actor portraying one of America's iconic presidents will evaporate within the first 10 minutes.
It's impossible to oversell the magnificence of Stone's Nixon. An epic, tragic survey of not only a man and his poisoned dreams, but also the country he irrevocably altered -- albeit not in the way he necessarily intended -- it's a stirring, riveting piece of cinema that only grows richer with each viewing. The mark of a classic is a work you can return to and from which you can extract something new and fascinating with each successive viewing. Nixon is such a work and as such, is one of the finest American films of the last 20 years.
This "Election Year Edition" of the director's cut marks the fourth DVD incarnation of Stone's epic and the third version of the director's cut to hit the market, after discs released in 1999 (theatrical), 2002 and 2004 (director's cut). While the most obvious upgrade -- a long overdue anamorphic widescreen transfer -- is reason enough to recommend this two-disc set for purchase, there are also some additional supplements worth sifting through for fans of the film, although the loss of the DTS track found on the 2002 edition is lamentable. This "Election Year Edition" is housed in a dual-disc keepcase, which slides into the embossed, holofoil slipcover. More on the extras below.The DVD
Presented in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 2.35:1 (the case says 2.40:1 but it's more or less splitting hairs), this anamorphic widescreen transfer ably handles the myriad, deliberate shifts in film stock -- from garish color to stark black and white, 35 mm to vintage video -- without ever displaying a blemish or showing its age. The colors are vivid throughout, blacks are inky without becoming noisy and the level of detail is thrillingly crisp. An all-around great image and a fine showcase for Robert Richardson's stunning cinematography.The Audio:
Matching the visuals step for step is the robust Dolby Digital 5.1 track that, from what I can discern, is virtually identical to the track found on the 2002 "Collectors Series" disc. The copious amounts of dialogue are clean and free of distortion, John Williams' stirring score threads beneath nearly every scene and the bracing usage of ambient sound effects ties everything together. It's a collage of evocative sounds perfectly attuned to the images. Sadly, the DTS track (ever so slightly warmer and more immersive) found on the 2002 "Collectors Series" disc is absent here, although optional English, French and Spanish subtitles are included.The Extras:
Many of the supplements assembled here are hold-overs from previous DVD releases of Nixon, not least of which are the pair of commentaries from the 2002 "Collectors Series" DVD that find Stone holding forth for a combined, staggering total of seven hours. Aside from the three and a half hour film, the first disc is home to commentary "A" (as it's tagged on the menu) which finds the director focused more on the nuts and bolts of making such a sprawling, detailed work and commentary "B," a track more concerned with the politics and events of Nixon's life. Both are absolutely fascinating listens, essential for students of both film and history.
The second disc houses the meat of the extras, chief of which is a brand-new, 35 minute, 16 second documentary "Beyond Nixon," directed by Stone's son Sean (presented in anamorphic widescreen), which explores the political and historical aspects of Nixon's time in the White House. The remainder of the extras are recycled: 10 deleted scenes (presented in fullscreen) are playable separately or all together for an aggregate of 58 minutes, 19 seconds. It's astonishing that a film of this length has even more excised footage, but as Stone himself says, the original cut was over four hours long. A 55 minute, six second Charlie Rose interview with Stone (presented in fullscreen) is included, as is the film's original theatrical trailer (presented in fullscreen) and trailers for Dirty Sexy Money, The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian, Lost and The Nightmare Before Christmas.Final Thoughts:
It's impossible to oversell the magnificence of Oliver Stone's Nixon. An epic, tragic survey of not only a man and his poisoned dreams, but also the country he irrevocably altered -- albeit not in the way he necessarily intended -- it's a stirring, riveting piece of cinema that only grows richer with each viewing. The mark of a classic is a work you can return to and from which you can extract something new and fascinating with each successive viewing. Nixon is such a work and as such, is one of the finest American films of the last 20 years. With upgraded picture and the addition of a fascinating documentary, this new two-disc set is very highly recommended, particularly for those who have yet to acquire this film on DVD.