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Nixon DVD Review

Nixon

November 11, 2003

Director: Oliver Stone,
Starring: 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, Brian Bedford, Kevin Dunn, Edward Herrmann, Dan Hedaya, Saul Rubinek,

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DVD Review

Nixon (1995) was initially available only in a DVD with minimal extras. Recently, Stone has revisited his entire canon with special edition treatments. Nixon was the last hold-out and has finally received a proper two-disc Collector’s Edition complete with audio commentaries and other excellent supplemental material.

Like Citizen Kane (1941), Nixon traces the dramatic rise and fall of a historical figure who tried so hard to be loved by all but ended up being infamous and misunderstood. While Orson Welles’ film was a thinly-veiled attack on newspaper tycoon, William Randolph Hearst, Stone paints an almost sympathetic portrayal of Richard Nixon. Stone may not like Nixon personally, but he does try to explore what motivated the man’s actions and really get inside his head. More importantly, Stone’s posits this thesis: the American political system is an unpredictable entity that politicians have no hope of ever fully controlling. The best they can do is keep it in check most of the time.

Stone began to explore this theory in JFK (1991) but it wasn’t until Nixon that he was able to fully articulate it. Stone’s film argues that Nixon really did want to institute change and make a difference in the world, but his own shortcomings, coupled with the complex infrastructure that is the U.S. political system, ultimately led to his downfall. Anthony Hopkins’ stunning portrayal of the former President humanizes this historical figure. >From the way the film is shot and edited, we are seeing the events of >U.S. history through Nixon’s perspective. This approach also helps in creating a sympathetic portrait of the man. Hopkins wisely does not opt for a Rich Little imitation but instead captures his essence and his spirit. It’s a wonderfully layered performance that Hopkins hasn’t equaled since.

Opposite Hopkins is Joan Allen as Pat Nixon. She more than holds her own with the Academy Award winning thespian portraying Pat as a long suffering yet incredibly strong-willed wife who has to sit by watch her husband strive for unattainable goals. This is not one of those token wife roles that is so often seen in these kinds of movies. The well-written screenplay and Allen’s performance flesh out Pat Nixon into a three-dimensional character.

As always, Stone’s knack for casting is impeccable. Much like he did with JFK, Stone surrounds his leads with an impressive roster of big names in the supporting roles: James Woods, Ed Harris, Bob Hoskins, David Hyde Pierce, Paul Sorvino and in a restored scene, Sam Waterston delivers a deliciously chilling performance as CIA Director Richard Helms.

What is perhaps most stunning about Nixon is the style of the film. Employing the editing techniques and innovative camerawork he perfected in JFK and Natural Born Killers (1994), Stone has created a unique version of the historical biopic that combines fact and speculation with a cinematic style that blends various film stocks into a seamlessly layered complex narrative. This fractured, overtly stylized approach draws attention to the fact that the we are watching a movie. Or rather, we are seeing historical events through the prism of Nixon’s perspective.

Special Features: On the first disc are two audio commentaries by Oliver Stone. The menu simply calls them Commentary A and B with no other distinction than that. The commentaries have their share of dead air but considering that this is a three and half hour film, I’m willing to forgive Stone for the occasional lull.

Commentary A covers the performances, style and script of the movie, while Commentary B delves into the politics and history of the period. Commentary A is the more entertaining of the two as Stone offers his personal observations on the film. He has a wicked sense of humour and, as always, isn’t afraid to speak his mind. For example, during the scene between Nixon and Helms, Stone mentions that Helms is the one person he’d like to interview in-depth regarding the Kennedy murders and the secrets of the country, but only if the filmmaker could utilize all sorts of “torture techniques” as he wryly puts it. Commentary B is good in its own right as Stone discusses a lot of information that the film assumes the audience already knows and identifies who is who and their function in the narrative. This is extremely helpful as it is very easy to lose track of who everyone is in this rather large and diverse cast. This commentary maybe of more interest to history buffs but Stone’s save it from being dull to the casual viewer.

The second disc features ten deleted or extended scenes, some of which, like the meeting between Nixon and Helms, have also been edited back into the movie. Stone provides an introduction for each scene that puts the footage into the proper context within the film.

From the original DVD is also included the five-minute electronic press kit fluff piece that feels more like an extended movie trailer and the theatrical trailer.

To balance out the superficial EPK is an excellent 55-minute interview Stone did with Charlie Rose. Even though he can be long-winded and pretentious at times, Rose asks superb, in-depth questions and clearly does his research. He knows exactly the right questions to ask Stone making this the best extra on the disc.

Nixon is a powerful historical biopic – arguably the last great one to come out of Hollywood. This two-disc set is a fantastic improvement over the original DVD. Perhaps the inclusion of a documentary on the real-life Nixon would’ve been nice for a different perspective on the man but this is a minor quibble. Nixon is well worth picking up for fans of Stone’s films and students of United States history.

J.D. is a freelance writer who is currently doing research for a book on the films of Michael Mann. He likes reading anything written by Jack Kerouac, James Ellroy, J.D. Salinger, Harlan Ellison or Thomas Pynchon. J.D. is currently addicted to the T.V. series 24 and enjoys drinking a lot of Sprite. This is not a blatant plug for the beverage but if they ever decided to give him a lifetime supply he certainly wouldn’t turn them down.
view all DVD reviews by JD Lafrance

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