The Presidents Analyst

Throughout Oliver Stone's Nixon, the title character, played by Anthony Hopkins, interacts a la Forrest Gump with historical figures like JFK and Mao.

Stone's view of Richard Nixon is a negative-image version of Gump--a darker misfit traveling through the American scene in this century's second half, turning history topsy-turvy. The difference is that, while Forrest's humble background and strong mother figure made him an unwitting agent for good, these same factors made Nixon a desperate political monster. The same screeches of outrage that greeted JFK over Stone's compression, conflation and plain invention of history are being heard about Nixon as well, but what's really surprising about the film is how unoutrageous it is.

Leaping about in time, Stone's narrative chronicles various episodes from Nixon's life, most of them already fairly familiar from other works. Stone, who co-wrote the script with Stephen J. Rivele and Christopher Wilkinson, has been typically reckless in cutting corners for the sake of plot and pace, but he doesn't seem to have put too much effort into making his subject weirder, because he didn't have to.

Indeed, what dramatist--what satirist, for that matter--would have dared to make up this story's more melodramatic and bizarre touches, like the Checkers speech, or Nixon's habit of talking to the portraits in the White House? If anything, Stone seems to regard his protagonist with unexpected sympathy, even with fondness. Nixon's career as a McCarthyite toady, the rabid character assassin of Jerry Voorhis and Alger Hiss and Helen Gahagan Douglas, is noted by Stone, but skipped through briskly. What occupies much more of this three-hour-plus film are scenes of Nixon's boyhood. Stone wants to show how Nixon's religious, cold, sternly moralistic mother (Mary Steenburgen), his boyhood poverty and his homeliness gave him a case of low self-esteem and a terror of failure so colossal that they destroyed his own career and many other careers, littered Vietnam and a few American college campuses with dead bodies, and abrogated the U.S. Constitution.

Yet when Nixon has himself driven to the Lincoln Memorial to talk to the war protesters, we're meant to see it's not a panicky public relations ploy--he really wants to get these kids' point of view, and, above all, to know why they hate him so.

Nixon is still too recent a part of our history for debate on what is or is not a fair picture of him to be anything but hopelessly partisan. But simply in cinematic terms, Nixon is quite consistently absorbing, with sweep and drive and many flourishes almost like those of a Shakespearean history--there's a Ghost-of-Banquo dinner after the Kent State riot, and, when the boozy, sex-starved Pat (Joan Allen) comes stalking in as the voice of her hubby's conscience, she's like one of the accusatory ghosts that appear to Richard III. These scenes of domestic strife are the furthest that Nixon ventures into the realm of camp.

Stone is helped greatly by the dazzling editing of Hank Corwin and Brian Berdan, and immeasurably by the brilliant cinematography of Robert Richardson, who shot JFK (the film, that is). Richardson's a master at capturing the grainy glare by which public life in this century is lighted--he can make Zapruder-quality footage look beautiful.

Above all, Stone is helped by his huge roster of big-name actors. Such juicy casting inspirations as Madeline Kahn as Martha Mitchell, James Woods as H.R. Haldeman and David Hyde Pierce as a fine, wormy John Dean bring a jazzy, bitchy crackle to the film that chases away bio-pic blues. But Hopkins is no joke--he somehow makes this risky role his own. He doesn't look, or even sound, much like the Nixon we remember from TV, but it might be said that he smells like him. Hopkins gives a soul to this spiteful, sweaty, tantrum-throwing, paranoid vulgarian.

Hopkins makes Nixon look somehow shrunken in stature, and Stone craftily emphasizes this on a visual level. Most of the other actors, including Allen, seem taller than Hopkins, and the camera often rises above Nixon, and looks down on him looking up. The character's inferiority complex is so extreme that when he hears (and is horrified by) the news that JFK's been shot, he mutters, "If I'd been elected, they wouldn't have tried to shoot me." Even here, he feels slighted.

A Matter of Life and Death (a.k.a. Stairway to Heaven): Directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger; with David Niven, Kim Hunter, Roger Livesey, Raymond Massey, Marius Goring, Robert Coote, Abraham Sofaer and Richard Attenborough. Unrated. (At Valley Art Theatre in Tempe.)

Engrossing though Nixon is, it may not be your idea of fun holiday fare, and the more lighthearted of current efforts, like Sabrina, may not seem much less oppressive. Valley Art Theatre has a splendid alternative: A rerelease of the 1946 film known to us as Stairway to Heaven, scripted and directed by the team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.

Superficially, this film follows the format of one of those schmaltzy fantasies about somebody pleading in the afterlife for a chance to return to Earth for a while, usually in the name of an interrupted love. That's the case here: RAF pilot David Niven has bailed out of his burning plane without a parachute only to find himself alive on the beach the next morning because a heavenly official (Marius Goring) lost track of him in the English fog.

The trouble is that, by the time the error's been discovered and the official goes to collect Niven, he's fallen in love with an American woman (Kim Hunter, in her pre-Planet of the Apes days). Niven demands an appeal on the grounds that he'd never have fallen in love but for the celestial slip-up, and that he therefore is entitled to life and marriage.

It's at this point that the film turns into an affectionate satire of postwar Anglo-American tensions, the easing of which was what the Brit government is said to have commissioned Powell and Pressburger to do with the film. The bone of contention that is argued in the heavenly court--whether a romance between an Englishman and an American woman is worthy--seems a bit quaint today, but it was probably a very real one at the time.

The stunning restored print of this enchanting picture, which Valley Art is showing, is making the art-house rounds courtesy of Martin Scorsese, under its original British title, A Matter of Life and Death. It's a thinking person's holiday film: warm and enchanting, but also witty, even a bit edgy.

Speaking of the holidays, if you've got last-minute shopping to do, remember that the movie freak on your list generally can be bought off inexpensively with a decent movie guide. Leonard Maltin's 1996 Movie & Video Guide (Signet), though by no means error-free and sometimes irritating in its critical judgments, remains the best general-reader's reference to the movies I know, and it has the advantage of being updated every year, thus always being a viable gift.

Somewhat more narrow in intent is Mark Satern's Illustrated Guide to Video's Best (Satern Press), a tome compiled by Valley writer Satern. Designed specifically for use while browsing at the video store, it includes only films that have received mainstream critical approval, and each entry is accompanied by a picture of the video packaging. It's a purely functional book, but it does have one advantage over Maltin's: It doesn't just claim a film is available on video and leave it at that. If you can find what you're looking for in Satern's book, you'll probably be able to find it on the shelf.

Filling the gaps of books like these is a favorite of mine, Michael Weldon's the Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film (Ballantine), a witty compendium of movies too obscure, or too disreputable, to be recognized in the mainstream canon. Note to Santa, or to any of my loved ones who may be reading this: I could use a new copy. Mine was ruined four years ago by the leakings of a tear-gas canister in Washington, D.C. Don't ask.--M.V.Moorhead

Directed by Oliver Stone; with Anthony Hopkins, Joan Allen, James Woods, Powers Boothe, Bob Hoskins, E.G. Marshall, David Hyde Pierce and Mary Steenburgen.

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