All film directors of note have signature touches – elements of style or content which recur from one work to the next. However, even the most ardent devotees of a filmmaker can tire of these touches when they become routine, stale and repetitive.
Down the years, many cinephiles have grown weary of Paul Cox's insertion of dreamy super-8 footage into his films, or Atom Egoyan's cool obsession with video cameras. But no recent movie can match the jaded mood of ennui prompted in this reviewer by Oliver Stone's latest epic of contemporary political history, Nixon.
It is unquestionably Stone's worst film. Everything that has riddled his previous films is here again, but this time delivered with little verve. There is a fascination with woolly, paranoid conspiracy theories; a touch of homophobia; the Forrest Gump-style blending of newsreel and fictional footage; and the usual barrage of crazy shock edits, colour filters and askew angles.
Stone's portrait of Nixon (Anthony Hopkins) spins backward from the Watergate crisis to various highlights and lowlights of his troubled political career. Aspects of Nixon's private life are canvassed as well, such as his marriage to Pat (Joan Allen) and the key, formative influence of his mother (Mary Steenburgen).
It is fruitless to argue whether this film is for or against Nixon. Stone has no single viewpoint on the matter. Rather, he labours to include all available viewpoints, and flatters all possible interpretations. If you are looking for an indictment of the system rather than the man, you will find that here. Equally, if you want to just gloat at the presentation of Nixon as an insane monster, you won't be disappointed either.
Stone himself, especially in America, seems to be all things to all people. To radicals, he is a nostalgic, reactionary arch-conservative. To conservatives, he is a stirrer, a subversive, a crackpot. This ideological confusion should make Nixon an interesting film, but it doesn't; the film's many viewpoints simply cancel each other out. What's worse, the resulting mess is dreary rather than madly compelling.
Stone's films are actually at their best when they are excessive, hysterical and incoherent, as is the case with JFK (1991), The Doors (1991) and Natural Born Killers (1994). These films tend toward the condition of pure, postmodern collage. Like a good tabloid television show, they frenetically mix fragments of drama, documentary, hallucination and parody.
Stone must have surely been tempted, in the editing room, to turn Nixon into another demented collage – a review of the radically diverse ways in which Nixon has been represented in the pop culture imagination. After all, during his reign, Nixon single-handedly inspired a style of burlesque political satire that survives to this day – a grotesque Punch and Judy depiction of the monstrosities of the political system.
There is a trace of such burlesque in Nixon – unsurprisingly, since Stone mined this tradition with such zest in Natural Born Killers. Hopkins is directed to exaggerate everything that is ungainly, ugly and insincere in Nixon – the fake smile, the hunched posture, the thick sweat forever building up on his clammy lip and brow.
Yet Nixon is not ultimately a satire, or even a critique. Stone is more heavily drawn toward a quite different biopic style – a serious, compassionate, even reverential attitude. His attempt to make this portrait into a moving, human drama inexorably takes the film down the path of solemn naturalism.
The trouble is, as Heaven and Earth (1993) proved, that Stone's films fall apart whenever they try to be calm and classical. Scenes in this film of Nixon reflective before a painting of JFK, or awestruck before the Lincoln Monument, are just awful. The sequence showing Nixon attempting to justify his behaviour to a gang of idealistic, fresh-faced youths is quite possibly the worst of the director's entire career.
Most of Nixon is comprised of long, dull scenes in the bleak, monochrome chambers of the Oval Office. Next to Hopkins' overripe mimicry, most of the cast (including James Woods, Bob Hoskins and David Hyde Pierce) appear as one-dimensional ciphers. Only Paul Sorvino as Kissinger exudes any degree of complex, dignified humanity.
Perhaps Stone should cease directing new films at this point. Like many a postmodern collagist before him, Stone could pull apart all his old films and establish from them a vast archive of jazzy fragments. After all, his movies have already started to overlap in uncanny ways. Oliver Stone's Personal History of Contemporary America – with special reference to the '60s: now that is a CD-Rom I would probably bother watching.
MORE biopics: Ali, Auto Focus, The Aviator, Basquiat, De-Lovely, Heart Like a Wheel, I Shot Andy Warhol, Kundun, The Life and Death of Peter Sellers, Man on the Moon, Malcolm X, The People vs. Larry Flynt, Pollock, What's Love Got to Do With It?
© Adrian Martin February 1996