Something strange happens during Oliver Stone’s Nixon, and it’s not just that ex-president Richard Nixon — figure of evil, target of ridicule — emerges as a real, suffering human being. It’s that the man, his life, and the movie itself merge, as in some unholy trinity, and pull together the themes Stone has underlined throughout his career: the twin decline of American conscience and American consciousness. Stone’s recent films, particularly Heaven and Earth and Natural Born Killers, seemed to me to express a dark self-disgust. I assumed the self-disgust was Stone’s, but now, with Nixon — which drips with Tricky Dick’s self-loathing — Stone’s message becomes clear. America hates itself; our country is on a suicidal guilt trip, and has been, perhaps, since Hiroshima. Nixon, the bitter mama’s boy who clutched at the American dream, was a perversely apt leader for this nation in its hour of seething chaos. Some of Nixon is crude, much is factually (and dramatically) slippery, and Stone is still too pushy and insistent. Yet this is still, I think, the great neglected American film of 1995: philosophical and experimental, wounded and impassioned — a fragmented epic of the psyche.

At first glance, Anthony Hopkins hardly seems an obvious or even a good choice to play Nixon. My heart sank when I saw the early photos of Hopkins wearing the familiar Nixon haircut but otherwise resembling him no more than I do. But looks aren’t everything. Sometimes, from certain angles — especially when he activates his wolfish fake grin — Hopkins does look startlingly like Nixon, or at least like Hopkins possessed by Nixon’s ghost. And really that’s what the performance is. Hopkins digs deep, drawing on his own reserves of self-doubt (how to play such a well-known, well-parodied man?), and brings back Nixon’s burned-out, paranoid soul — his eternal, essential loneliness, the resentment and neediness and grief beneath the impenetrable shell. In public, Hopkins’ Nixon puts on his Nixon mask. In private, his stubbly features collapse. He becomes a raging, depressive id, an exposed nerve.

We know all this, of course. Nixon’s bizarre psyche became common knowledge with the Woodward-Bernstein books, and Saturday Night Live wasted no time jumping on the abject Nixon-Kissinger prayer anecdote in The Final Days. In retrospect, Nixon was not so much a monstrous or tragic figure as a cautionary one — less a Richard III than a lumpen Macbeth, a pathetic man consumed by his own naked ambition. Helplessly, he brought shame upon his country, his office, himself. What Nixon illustrates so indelibly is that the shame festered in him from the start. Two of Nixon’s brothers died of tuberculosis, freeing up some money his parents used to send him to law school. But that school was Whittier, not “the right school” — i.e., Harvard, which birthed Jack and Bobby Kennedy. Nixon’s drive to power, according to Stone, was ambiguous and vengeful. Deprived of the American royalty and telegenic suavity of the brothers Kennedy, he had to prove that he, Richard Nixon, could transcend anything, could “keep fighting.” In the movie, when Nixon assumes the presidency, he becomes a rigid man, a rusty flagpole that won’t bend in the hot winds of change. Yet he also craves popular acceptance. Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown of thorns.

In Nixon, Stone introduces “the Beast” (in Natural Born Killers it was “the Demon”), a catch-all mystical boogeyman that apparently symbolizes the primal chaos and violence of human nature, the collective American id. Like JFK, Nixon posits a military-industrial Beast, fed by corrupt tycoons and Cuban interests. James Ellroy, in his kaleidoscopic novel American Tabloid (which reads like a jazz riff on JFK), swam through this same sewage without slapping a fancy Biblical name on it. At times, Stone’s Beast is as silly a straw man as Bob Dole’s media violence or Bill Clinton’s Joe Camel. Two examples: the scenes in Nixon when Nixon butts heads with callous, shadowy big-wigs (among them Larry Hagman, doing a tumorous variation on J.R. Ewing) play like special pleading. “See,” Stone is saying, “Nixon stood up to these guys, but there was only so much he could do without getting popped like JFK.” And there’s a terrible scene, set days after the Kent State massacre, in which Nixon confronts young protesters in front of the Lincoln Memorial. Nixon tries ingratiating himself by talking football — that part is fine. But then a pretty young student asks Nixon why he doesn’t stop the fighting in Vietnam. Perhaps having read the script, she concludes, “You couldn’t stop it if you wanted to.” Shaken, Nixon walks to his limo convinced that the student has put her finger on the Beast that forces his hand.

Stone doesn’t need this mythology. Most of Nixon paints a stark portrait of a rougher Beast — the Beast in Nixon and, by extension, the Beast in us. Stylistically, Nixon is the third panel in Stone’s shattered-glass American triptych, begun by JFK and continued in Natural Born Killers, whose Cuisinart style was itself the subject. In form, Nixon is far from the usual biopic. It hops from decade to decade, from style to style, as if trying to reconcile the scattered pieces of Nixon’s soul, the schizophrenia of a life lived under a magnifying glass. The effect is less trippy than free-associative. Stone is collecting the jagged shards of what we know about Nixon and gluing them into a cracked mirror on America. “When they look at you,” Nixon mutters to a painting of JFK, “they see what they want to be. When they look at me, they see what they are.” The editing (by Brian Berdan and Hank Corwin, Stone’s NBK team) strobes us subliminally into complicity with Nixon. We share his experience; we swim around inside his head.

If we’re never with him all the way — if our understanding is aesthetic instead of compassionate, if we observe his fall with pity rather than with empathy — that’s because Nixon finally blocks us out just as stubbornly as he shuts out everyone else. The glimpses of raw, anguished need that Hopkins flashes us are more than enough. Nixon is about a frozen man burning in shame, refusing to let himself melt in the heat. In the end, he isn’t broken — he’s splintered, like the film itself. The Beast may have left Nixon, but Oliver Stone assures us that it will always fiddle while America burns.

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