Will ‘W.’ hold a candle to ‘Nixon?’

Posted by · 9:26 am · August 26th, 2008

Hollywood Pictures' NixonWith Lionsgate Films’ “W.” on the horizon, we are reminded of the last film Oliver Stone made about an American President: “Nixon,” a critically praised and Oscar nominated work that was the exact opposite of what most thought it would be.

An angry child of the 1960s, having chronicled Vietnam on screen (some say definitively), Stone announced he was making a biography of President Richard M. Nixon and the feeling was that the film would be an attack on the man, who resigned office in 1974.  Yet when the film was released and critics got a look at it, they were overwhelmed by Stone’s work. Instead of an all out diatribe, he had created a study of a man who felt unworthy of the highest office in the land, even though he spent much of his life trying to get there, and was for most of his presidency a very good Commander-in-Chief.

Stone’s film portrayed Nixon warts and all, the paranoia, the vulgar language he was known to use, his mistrust of even those closest to him, his jealousy of the Kennedy clan, and the strange hold his mother had on him, even in his later years.  The film displayed a brilliant statesman who struggled with his own sense of self worth, knowing that he could never be loved as Kennedy was, yet also aware of the good he was doing.

Nixon opened relations with two communist countries, Russia and China, a huge move for him as he was a known communist hater and right hand man to no less than Senator Joseph McCarthy during the red purge of the 1950s that ruined many innocents. He would end Vietnam after having escalated a war he inherited, admitting defeat, and when the nation screamed for his impeachment just two years after being re-elected with the largest margin in the history of United States politics, he resigned in disgrace.

Yet history would be kind to Nixon. Every single U.S. president relied on the man for advice and counsel in matters of foreign affairs until his death. He became a respected elder statesman of American politics and as Henry Kissinger supposedly promised him as they prayed together in the White House, history found Nixon.

Anthony Hopkins was superb as Nixon, capturing, as Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman would astutely point out, “his tortured soul.” Hopkins neither looked nor sounded like Nixon, yet within minutes we were no longer aware the man on the screen was Anthony Hopkins…we were watching Richard Nixon.

Equally good in support was the great Joan Allen as Pat, his long-suffering wife, and Paul Sorvino as Henry Kissinger. Hopkins and Allen were nominated for Academy Awards for their performances, deservedly so, and finished second in balloting for several of the critics awards in 1995.

“Nixon” was almost Shakespearean in its tragedy of a man who had it all, and through his own tragic flaws of character saw it slip away. I chose the film as the year’s best in 1995, as did Entertainment Weekly and several other publications. That is a choice I stand by and believe the film will be treasured in years to come.

Coming back to “W,” it doesn’t seem out of bounds to say this looks like no such film.  Rather it seems to be the film we all expected “Nixon” to be. President George W. Bush, not my favorite human being, will apparently be portrayed as a fool. A hard drinking, coke snorting moron who bought his way into office on the coattails of his father, won a false election and then created a war predicated on lies.

Rolling Stone has asked that question, “Is George W. Bush the worst President in history?”  And many felt he was indeed.  On one hand Stone may portray Dub-ya as we see him, and as he in fact is, but at the end of the day, after eight years of George W. Bush…does anybody really care? I will see the film because it is my job to do so, and it is an Oliver Stone effort, which brings to it a degree of credibility.  But I cannot say I am excited about seeing it…at all.

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11 responses so far

  • 1 8-26-2008 at 9:28 am

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    “President George W. Bush, not my favorite human being, will apparently be portrayed as a fool. A hard drinking, coke snorting moron who bought his way into office on the coattails of his father, won a false election and then created a war predicated on lies.”

    All of that is pretty much true, though.

    With respect, the script for this film DOES come at it from a character study rather than a full blown assault. The assault is still there, however, because the above sentiments are so painfully true. It’s just not a cinematic tale and I might agree with you that I’d prefer to just move on without the film.

    As long as the cast doesn’t appear as community theatre-ish as they do in the trailer…

  • 2 8-26-2008 at 9:41 am

    John Foote said...

    I agree Kris…this is the most unnecessary film in since “Freddy Got Fingered”.

  • 3 8-26-2008 at 9:42 am

    Kit Stolz said...

    If you look at the script to “Nixon,” yes, it is a thoughtful and even respectful character study, with a surprisingly deep understanding of Nixon, and great sympathy for his taken-for-granted wife.

    But a movie is much more than a script, and although it’s true that critics were impressed by the movie, its hyperactive visual style (a little like Carol Reed on acid) all but ruined its chances of being taken seriously. Multiple film stocks, grainy B&W jump cut into saturated color, bizarre angles cross-cut into each other…it was exhausting to see, even for a young film fan, and completely out of the question for older people who might actually be interested in the character.

    Prediction: W. will be shot in a much more traditional style, so that audiences will judge it on its portrayal of the character. Had “Nixon” been directed in that way, it might have had a better chance at real success.

  • 4 8-26-2008 at 9:49 am

    John Foote said...

    So a film has to be shot in a traditional style to be a success? And is money your measure of success? I disagree, strongly and stand by the fact Nixon is a brilliant film. Other films with a non-traditional shooting style include Natural Born Killers, Fight Club, Black Hawk Down, even Saving Private Ryan, each a superb work. Re-think your stance…please. Was Stone trying to exhaust his audience as Nixon exhausted the country? There was obviously a reason for what he did. I remember one critic, forget who, stated that a negative style shot of Nixon was like an Xray into his soul.

  • 5 8-26-2008 at 10:36 am

    Mr. Gittes said...

    I’m going to have to agree with Kris. While I can’t wait to see W., the script tells me (us) that Stone’s latest will not be an “Xray” on Bush’s sole. Rather, it will only show that Texans should never reside in the White House.

    Nixon is an amazing movie, however, the media and critics aimed their sights on one thing and one thing only: Stone’s suggestion that Nixon had a direct or indirect involvement with the Kennedy assassination. The cinematic accomplishment of Nixon was drowned by the media’s focus on that scene between Nixon and those oilmen…oilmen from Texas, no less.

    I suggest reading David Talbot’s, “Brothers.” It shows how Stone and others might be right.

    I’m indulging in fantasy here, but my dream is to direct a RFK biopic. I’m not gonna lie, I would copy Stone by using “Shenandoah” over the end credits…that moment gets me every time in Nixon.

  • 6 8-26-2008 at 10:37 am

    Mr. Gittes said...

    Soul, not sole…oops.

  • 7 8-26-2008 at 11:40 am

    Daniel Crooke said...

    Stone’s Nixon was brilliant, and his non traditional way of assembling the film may have been the best part, next to the outstanding performances and the humanization of Richard Nixon.

  • 8 8-26-2008 at 11:54 am

    Markku said...

    While one must admit W.’s script has problems, I don’t think it’s as harsh on Bush as is suggested. He’s portrayed as sometimes unlikable and often dead wrong, but never evil or stupid.

    And yes, Nixon is an amazing film. Reading that film’s script, Nixon occasionally comes close to a sweaty, swearing caricature, too. Luckily, Hopkins’ resourceful, fearless performance manages to make even “c*cksuckers” sound like poetry.

  • 9 8-26-2008 at 4:34 pm

    Kit Stolz said...

    No, of course a movie doesn’t have to be shot in a traditional style to be a success. Stone also took some big chances in “Platoon” to get across his ideas, as did Coppola for that matter in “Apocalypse Now,” and in both cases their daring unconventionality helped enormously to express the confusion and amorality of the Vietnam war.

    But you’re arguing that “Nixon” was underappreciated as a character study, and what I’m saying is that the chaotic cinematography distracted all but the most fervent cinema buffs from the central point of the movie. My “proof” was the prediction that “W.” will be shot in a relatively traditional style, without wild mixing of film stocks, camera angles, etc. If I’m wrong, I’ll withdraw the argument. But if it turns out I’m right, I think you need to admit that Stone himself may have come to the same conclusion.

    “Innovation” is not always improvement. If you don’t believe me, take a look at Carol Reed’s career. He’s much more compelling in his earlier, steadier mode (“The Third Man”) than in his later “expressionist” mode (“The Key”).

  • 10 8-31-2008 at 2:39 pm

    Jeff said...

    No…of course not. Nixon was necessary in the shock and awe Americans felt at being betrayed by their President. People have solidified their own dismal opinions of Bush. For a couple years (for most, or 8 for some of us =]) we’ve realized the failure of Bush and looked foward to people like Obama (and McCain) to give us hope. There is no betrayal of trust…he never really won it. We don’t need to “see” what happened. We’re still seeing it today. No one wants to think about this guy while he’s still in office. So no, culturally it won’t be as important. And I know Anthony Hopkins, Josh Brolin, and you are no Anthony Hopkins.

  • 11 10-02-2008 at 8:03 pm

    Patrick said...

    What else can we do at this point but laugh at everything Bush. I am looking forward to this and I predict Golden Globe nominations for Best Comedy plus Brolin for Actor in a Musical/Comedy.