I'm not normally a fan of Oliver Stone (in fact, I've NEVER liked an Oliver Stone picture before)but this one just blew me away. The reason I usually don't like him is that, though he is a great technical director and visual stylist, his scripts are heavy-handed and one-sided to the point of absurdity. But not here. In fact, the script is perhaps the most impressive element in this whole movie, not only for how ambiguous and even-handed it is in dealing with Nixon as a character, but also for the brilliant way it moves around in time. It starts with Nixon, feeling embattled in the White House in 1973 as the Watergate hearings are upon him, and uses the device of him listening to his secret tapes to jump back and forth to previous eras, flawlessly moving between past and present to give an impressionistic, kaleidoscopic overview of the man's life, instead of following the staid and ho-hum linear approach most movie biographies take (most recent example: "Man on the Moon", the bio on Andy Kaufman which was a snoozer in spite of a great performance by Jim Carrey mainly because of the dry boring, "This happened. . .And then this happened" approach).
Another reason to see this film is the brilliant, absolutely overwhelming lead performance by Anthony Hopkins; his Nixon may not look or sound exactly like the 37th president (but come on, except maybe for Ed Sullivan, who does?) but he embodies his qualities - strengths as well as weaknesses - to such an enormous degree that he simply BECOMES Nixon, at least for the three hours the movie is on screen.
I have to say, though, I was not nearly as impressed as every one else (critics and general audiences alike) seems to be about Joan Allen as Pat Nixon. It's nothing against her performance, she did fine, it's just that as written, the part is rather weak. In fact, I was much more bothered about the liberties the filmmakers took in fleshing out her character than in all the political events; it's like, whenever they wanted to have someone blast Nixon or act as his conscience, they'd trot out Ol' Pat, giving her some of the most embarrasingly "speechified" moments in all of the movies - almost none of their scenes together ringed true as husband as wife; it was more like Nixon sitting across from the Filmmakers' Conscience. In fact, she's angry at him so often in the film you have to wonder, what exactly does she love about the man? The film never answers (or attempts to answer) this question.
But this one minor quibble is not enough to make me downgrade this film. It is an absolutely stunning achievement by any stretch of the imagination, and it contains some interesting thematic and technical echoes of both Citizen Kane (cavernous high ceiling scenes, a "March of Time"-type newsreel on Nixon, a dinner scene between Dick and Pat at a long, impersonal table) as well as The Godfather (the burnished, half-dark half-light cinematography, several "chamber of power" scenes in tight, dark and claustrophobic rooms)that I found, in context, to be totally appropriate. It paints both Nixon and the times he (and the country) lived through on a grand and mythic scale that was truly awesome and, once again, entirely appropriate. Yes, it's a film that is at times big, loud and bombastic (because so, after all, was Nixon himself) but, just as often quiet, contemplative and told at an achingly *human* level. The contrast between these two states is what gives the film a good deal of its overall power and, as I've said, I never would have believed that Stone would have been capable of doing the smaller, quieter scenes so well.
This is a good film to have on tape or DVD, for two reasons. It's so long, and so dense with facts, characters and events, that you're not likely to want to watch it all the way straight through (the first time I saw it was in the theater and though I was held spellbound, I began wishing for an intermission at about the two-hour mark, not so much to stretch my legs but to give my brain a chance to process all I'd seen and heard so far). Also, and more importantly, the videotape includes after the credits two scenes cut out of the final film for time purposes. In both cases, I believe, a severe mistake was made - these are both, I believe, ESSENTIAL sequences; not just nice to have as an additional bargain, but scenes which Stone should have fought tooth and nail to keep in (even cutting out some others if he had to - my vote would have been to excise a few of those Pat Nixon scenes instead). Once scene involves Nixon's visit to the CIA and another a discussion between Nixon and J. Edgar Hoover in the Oval Office. The first scene is a masterpiece of writing and acting (with Sam Waterston as CIA Director Richard Helms, otherwise in no other scene of the movie) and the other is, I think, key in understanding Nixon's motivation to begin taping his White House conversations in the first place (also - an issue which is touched on no other place in the movie). I feel that these two scenes should be edited back into their appropriate places in the movie; seeing them separated from the rest of the film is better than not seeing them at all, but they really belong as part of the entire story.