Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: The release of the Abscam comedy American Hustle has us thinking back on other films about politics and corruption.
To a certain demographic, Richard Nixon’s name is synonymous with political corruption—an association that endures in part thanks to his administration’s offscreen presence in All The President’s Men. Indeed, Oliver Stone’s Nixon begins with shadowy images and TV-news exposition about the Watergate scandal, all under an ominous John Williams score. But while the movie begins with the aftermath of Watergate, perpetual rabble-rouser Stone reveals greater interest in the corruption of Nixon’s soul.
The movie’s Biblical epigraph—”For what is a man profited, it he shall gain the whole world, and lose his soul?”—makes the investigation explicit, as does the towering lead performance from Anthony Hopkins as the 37th president. Hopkins doesn’t look much like the real thing, and the Welsh lilt of his voice is still faintly audible when his Nixon speaks. Instead, he inhabits the man’s twitchiness, intelligence, and insecurities in a performance that goes beyond his physical limitations—just as the movie shows Nixon straining to reach beyond his lack of Kennedy-level handsomeness and charm, and grasping for power in the process. When Nixon muses that the deaths of the Kennedy brothers and so many soldiers in Vietnam “cleared a path through the wilderness just for me,” Hopkins conveys both wonder and a deep sense of guilt.
Stone, similarly, seems driven by both a fascination with the president’s resilience and sorrow over his failings. To cover plenty of both, the film skips around in time, spanning decades of its subject’s life and over three hours of running time (three and a half in Stone’s widely available director’s cut). Such comprehensiveness can be ruinous for a biopic; it’s Stone’s bombastic ’90s style that makes the difference here. His mix of canted angles, black-and-white, faux-newsreel stock, and actual news footage created cascading paranoia in JFK and sensory overload in Natural Born Killers. In Nixon, his collage turns unexpectedly elegiac. A parade of terrific character actors—including, but not limited to, Joan Allen, Ed Harris, Bob Hoskins (as J. Edgar Hoover!), James Woods, J.T. Walsh, and even Dan Hedaya, who’d later play Nixon in Dick—surround Hopkins’ leader, sometimes with corruption more blatant than his. But ultimately, the president, tarnished soul and all, stands alone.
Availability: Nixon is available on Blu-ray and DVD (which can be obtained through Netflix), and for rental or purchase through Amazon Instant Video and iTunes.