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Nixon

Year: 1995
Production Co: Cinergi
Director: Oliver Stone
Writer: Stephen J Rivele/Christopher Wilkinson/Oliver Stone
Cast: Anthony Hopkins, Joan Allen, Powers Boothe, Ed Harris, Bob Hoskins, David Paymer, David Hyde Pierce, Paul Sorvino, Mary Steenburgen, J T Walsh, James Woods, Kevin Dunn, Annabeth Gish, Larry Hagman, Madeline Kahn, Dan Hedaya, Saul Rubinek, John Diehl, John C McGinley, Michael Chiklis, Joanna Going, Marley Shelton, Bai Ling, Donna Dixon, John Stockwell

Someone shoud have sat Spielberg down, made him watch this film and then said 'this is how you make a movie about politicians'.

Nixon's life was no more violent than Lincoln's (less so in fact – we all know how the latter ended up). But Stone's depiction of his life and work has all the movement, urgency and colour of a well-crafted thriller whereas Lincoln, while worthy, was as narratively compelling as waiting for a dog to take a crap. I read a review that called Nixon 'a hulking tyrannosaur of a movie, lusty and fierce, crashing around for all the world to see', and I can't put it any better than that.

Stone is in JFK mode here, Nixon not quite as good but just as carefully constructed and feeling just as much like an insider's view. His Nixon (Hopkins) is a dedicated and principled man who fell further into the muddy quagmire politicians exist in, doing what he could to scrape it off himself and getting more stuck in the process until – as history shows – it bought his presidency down.

Flashbacks of Nixon's repressed, difficult upbringing in rural California go some of the way to building in a backstory about how the endlessly unpopular man just wanted people to like and accept him.

But it's just as likely the Democratic headquarters break-in that started the whole messy ball rolling was just bad judgment. Scenes near the end of the film show Nixon firing everyone who could possibly inflict any political damage, like a failed dictator fearfully and indiscriminately removing potential enemies while desperate to hold onto his crown.

There's too much story to even begin to talk about, and like JFK you won't even follow some of it – maybe most of it. But it's less about the words than it is about the performance and the authenticity on screen that makes you feel like you're watching history being made in every angry hushed word and fake smile for the cameras.

The framing device is of the drunk, bitter President listening to boxes of the secret tapes that were made in the Oval Office, recordings that might now contain the damning evidence that will probably spell the end of his career. As Nixon drinks, mumbles and listens to the tapes he remembers everything from his several failed campaigns for public office to the fallout of his decisions (like Vietnam) and the emotional estrangement of his ever-supportive wife Pat (Allen).

Also like JFK, Stone stuffs so many recognisable faces into roles both big and small you could watch the whole movie once just to play spot-the-star without even concentrating on the plot. Everyone from Madeline Kahn to Marley Shelton is in it, with standouts that include Bob Hoskins as J Egar Hoover and Larry Hagman as a bigoted Southern industrialist underwriting Nixon's power.

Stone was still at the top of his game at the time, and both his directorial techniques and his subject – a contradictory, hated figure like Richard Nixon rather than the Godlike, benevolent Lincoln – makes it even more interesting.

The real Nixon was also before my time so I'm not very familiar with his voice or manner, but it's always good to see Hopkins actually playing a role instead of just showing up to collect a cheque for another Ben Kenobi/Dumbledore allegory.

Of course if you're not the least interested in the machinations of political power, it might bore the pants off you.

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