Gargoyle in the White House

NIXON Oliver Stone (15); Oliver Stone has done justice to the inferiority complex who ruled the world, says Adam Mars-Jones
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
After a string of abysmal films, and years when he couldn't seem to make so much as an effective scene, it's hard to believe that Oliver Stone's Nixon could have so much substance to it. Nixon is not that holy grail of this year's film releases - the three-hour film that justifies every second of its running time - but it does try to do justice to a complex figure. When you consider how often Stone's character drawing has been caricatural, it'sremarkable that he should respect the contradictions of a man who was never far from self-parody.

Nixon has several openings in different genres and moods, one after another (and correspondingly several endings), as if Stone were delivering his film in kit form, for home assembly with custom options. One sequence is shot like an action movie, with rapid cutting and extreme close-ups, as the Watergate burglars set off to do the deed. But in fact the film takes place largely in Nixon's head, in a series of interlocking flashbacks. This brooding figure holed up in the White House, obsessively replaying tape and memories, isn't too far from the hero of Altman's 1984 one-man film Secret Honor, made before Nixon's late-life and posthumous (and always equivocal) rehabilitation as a statesman of vision.

In another opening sequence, the camera approaches the railings of the White House in a rain storm, Gothic with thunder and lightning, and reveals it as the haunted house in a horror movie. This genre touch is actually to the point, since by bugging the building Nixon created the electronic equivalent of a haunted house's labyrinth of hidden passages - secret compartments where crimes never died.

The film suggests that Nixon himself was haunted, not by remorse for his own copious wrong-doings, but by guilt over something for which he bore no responsibility: the deaths from tuberculosis of two brothers, thanks to which his unprosperous parents were able to send him to law school. His bleak saint of a Quaker mother, played in the film by Mary Steenburgen, impressed upon him that God had willed his brothers' sufferings and his own survival, and gave him the watchword "strength in this life... happiness in the next". Hence, as Stone and his co-writers see it (Clayton Townsend, Andrew Vajna), Nixon's pathologically inflexible side, co-existing with a helpless private individual who refers to courses of action that he would like to take, but which "Nixon", referred to in the third person, cannot contemplate.

As Alexander Haig comes to deliver tapes to Nixon, the film aligns itself with noir: the camera favours skewed angles, while light falls between solid slabs of darkness on to the sets that were originally built for the Michael Douglas/Annette Bening vehicle The American President. Noir, too, is a relevant template for the story of a man destroyed by his own fears (Nixon would have been re-elected without any attempt to manipulate the process), by the habit of the trail rather than the need for it.

Anthony Hopkins isn't obvious casting for Nixon, to put it mildly, and no attempt has been made to achieve an impersonation by means of prosthetic make-up (or rather, the attempt was made and abandoned). The vocal aspect of the performance is its least satisfactory, not just because the accent doesn't seem altogether rooted but also because Hopkins can't quite bring himself to abandon his natural music in the interests of simulating Nixon's repertoire of snarls, mumbles and mumbling snarls. But he does offer us a whole gallery of terrible smiles, and captures the way Nixon's tongue would churn restlessly in his mouth. Nixon's basic posture is hunched, arms crossed to hug himself, until suddenly he stabs out a gesture of command, sometime with the thumb or even the little finger.

When Nixon re-enters politics in the early Sixties without telling Pat, he must win her over and head off any threat of divorce. Turning to his aides, he says, "I'll use the old Nixon charm," and scrunches up his face in a truly horrible wink, an expression that would look at home on the roof of a Gothic cathedral. Later he strikes another gargoyle posture, raising his arms in the double victory salute while keeping his shoulders hunched, which Stone shows in momentary silhouette, as if this was the Elephant Man being displayed in all his distortedness to an invited audience.

Hopkins's achievement is to show us a Nixon who is unappeasable but not inhuman. There are even a couple of sequences where audiences will root for him. He calls the bluff of powerful supporters - a Texas plutocrat (Larry Hagman) on one occasion, Henry Kissinger (Paul Sorvino) on another - even if all it comes down to is the base triumph of reminding them they're no better than he is. In a strange way, when everyone has the goods on everyone else, political life goes on as before.

It would be nice to be able to report that Oliver Stone has shed all his bad habits, but there it is. He still has no resistance to the crashingly obvious symbol: a man who has just ordered a campaign of illegal bombing on a distant country flinching from the blood in the steak on his dinner plate, for instance; or Air Force One suddenly running into turbulence, to signal to us that politically there is trouble ahead. Stone is still a massively repetitive maker of rhetorical points, the irony being that if his audiences were spared the bludgeoning of his imagery they wouldn't need to be told anything more than once.

Set against this persisting defect are some virtues altogether new in Stone's work. The casting is unusually clever and piquant, mixing close physical resemblances (Edward Herrmann as Nelson Rockefeller) with inspired caricatures (Madeline Kahn as Martha Mitchell). John Dean is played by David Hyde Pierce, Miles from television's Frasier, whose pale weasel face makes it clear from the start that he isn't going to be taking a fall for anyone.

There is humour, too, some of it painful, as in the scene where a despairing Nixon gets down on his knees and asks Kissinger to pray with him. Kissinger hopes this at least isn't being taped. Nixon may not deliver everything Oliver Stone thinks it does, but it's a more solid achievement than cinema- goers have any right to expect from him. It captures something of its strange subject, this sweating inferiority complex who ruled the world.

n On release from tomorrow