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TRICKY OLIVER

Many Americans who spent the better part of three decades with Richard Nixon may not want to give him three hours and twenty minutes more of their time now. But Oliver Stone, a moviemaker who's always had more nerve than sense, is betting that the familiar Nixon ambiguity--half idealist, half beast, Stone calls him--will draw throngs into the theaters for another dose of the dogged politician a nation loved to hate.

The casting of Nixon is bizarre, to say the least. After Tom Hanks and Jack Nicholson both declined, Stone settled on that great craftsman Anthony Hopkins. He looks bigger and fleshier than his model, and every time a hint of his British intonation creeps into the dialogue the effect is surreal. Hopkins gives his all, down to the most self-conscious Nixonian gesture, and the sweaty upper lip. But it's hard to escape the notion that Hannibal Lecter has somehow mutated into the 37th president of the United States. Not only that, he's about to polish the White House silver.

So, what of the portrait itself? Clearly, the grandiose Mr. Stone fashions himself quite a subversive. But the Nixon we meet here is grimly conventional--the same joyless, insecure, demon-plagued striver political historians and biographers have given us for decades. Still haunted by his stern Quaker mother (Mary Steenburgen), the early deaths of two brothers, the patrician grace of the Kennedys and his failures on the Whittier College football team, this Nixon, too, is reduced to a paranoiac, mean-spirited man convinced that "they" all hate him and that he's always had the wrong clothes hanging in his closet. Gazing up at JFK's portrait as Watergate brings him low, this Nixon repeats a famous assessment: "When they look at you, they see what they want to be; when they look at me, they see what they are."

In a nutshell, that's the tragedy Oliver Stone sees in Richard Nixon's life--that his puny soul couldn't bear the grandeur of tragedy. Even his loyal but divided wife Pat (Joan Allen), whom Nixon called "Buddy" and who emerges as the movie's most fascinating character, loses heart. Chain-smoking and fed up again, she spits at him: "Sometimes I understand why they hate you."

Meanwhile, those Hollywood rumors that Stone's movie would try to implicate Nixon in--what else?--the JFK assassination turn out to be false. Stone puts a baffled Nixon in Dallas the day before the killing, just as other assassination buffs have done. And he speculates that Nixon himself, not Rose Mary Woods, deleted those infamous eighteen-and-a-half minutes from a crucial White House tape because they revealed a secret Eisenhower/CIA plan to kill Fidel Castro. But that's as far as Stone goes: We even see Hopkins's Nixon grieving over the deaths of the Kennedy brothers, just as he grieved over the deaths, from TB, of the Nixon brothers. It was over these four bodies, we are told, that he strode to power, saddled with survivor's guilt. Hmmmm. Maybe.

Looking for pond scum? Try James Woods's devious Haldeman, Paul Sorvino's conniving Kissinger or, darkest of all, Bob Hoskins's fey, power-mad J. Edgar Hoover, who not only shakes Nixon down at the racetrack but plucks a slice of cheese from a pretty houseboy's mouth with his...mouth. Stone has also inserted some of his notorious "composites" and "condensations" into Nixon, most notably a powerful backer named "Jack Jones" (Larry Hagman) who really is mixed up with the JFK plot.

Stone says he watched Eisenstein movies to find Nixon's style, but his real inspiration seems to be nothing less than Citizen Kane. The director's dark views of the White House (and the darkness of Nixon himself) smack of Kane at its most baroque, notwithstanding Stone's frantic leaps back and forth through the decades and his busy pastiche, a la Natural Born Killers, of color and stark black-and-white, fine-grain film stock and roughed-up video footage. Be he ever so bold, however, Stone is no Orson Welles.

And Nixon is no masterpiece about power and its abuse. At best, this is an unsurprising survey of the man's life from before Alger Hiss to after Woodward and Bernstein, with all the usual stops between and lip service to the Nixon "rehabilitation" in the end. But its protagonist is almost comically miscast, and the entire enterprise falls victim to an irony: If Nixon wasn't big enough for the presidency, Nixon isn't good enough to tell us who he really was.

 
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