A tale of two Tricky Dicks

Two Richards--Nixon and Lancaster--plus one Oliver--prove that power corrupts absolutely

It's comforting to think of leadership as an innate ability among certain men and women, a talent much like any other, such as playing the harpsichord or doing long division in your head. "A born leader," you often hear, as if no training were involved to demonstrate proficiency at it. Or does leadership less resemble a true talent than it does an acquired skill, like juggling: If you do it enough, won't you eventually get the hang of it? The hard part is practicing: How do you lead without followers? And how do you acquire followers without charisma?

Two new movies about two men named Richard--Nixon and Lancaster--tackle the nature of leadership and the two standard-bearers whose low self-esteem and tragic abuses of power conspire to prove their undoing. One, Richard Loncraine's Richard III, brilliantly chronicles the hubris of a bitter, hateful manipulator of men; the other, Oliver Stone's Nixon, limps along without any purpose, as ill-conceived and sloppily executed as the Watergate break-in itself.

Nixon, Stone's much-anticipated biography of the 37th president, played by Anthony Hopkins, begins with a scene of hammy familiarity: Starting with a shot of the White House gate, the camera slowly advances on the distant, castle-like structure, then fades to the darkened interior of the forbidding, lonely lives inside. Stone has never been referential toward other films, so such a blatant device is jarring: He has chosen as his medium for relating Nixon's story the format from Citizen Kane. At first, this seems an odd choice indeed, but you have to give Stone credit for trying to draw the parallels convincingly: Nixon's obsession with his stern but loving mother (Mary Steenburgen); his abrupt departure from home and family to satisfy his calling to greatness; his inevitable fall.

Like Kane, Nixon takes a largely sympathetic, though ultimately critical, view of its subject, but the similarities end there. Nixon has none of the wit or emotional honesty of Kane, and we learn nothing interesting about what drove this man beyond some vague feeling for his low self-image and revulsion to losing elections. Those points are probably relevant to Nixon's psychological make-up, but as developed in the screenplay by Stephen J. Rivele, Christopher Wilkinson, and Stone, they have the force of encyclopedia entries--dreary recitations, not central theses. The film can't even hang its hat on a cliché as easy to grasp as "pride goeth before the fall," because it simply cannot commit itself to a unifying theme, opting instead for a panorama of unexplored hunches and haphazard semithoughts arranged as an intricate lattice of influences and motivations.

The choppy narrative line at least resists the standard bio-pic format; Richard Attenborough's Chaplin was a serious abuser of it. Yet while the structure's endless ricochets are not difficult to follow, they put Stone at odds with himself: Was Nixon so mother-fixated that he saw his wife Pat (Joan Allen) as some kind of surrogate? Did the death of his brother from tuberculosis actually contribute to his guilt over dying soldiers, leading to his decision to end the war in Vietnam? There's no reason to believe that either of these nuggets is true, and Stone leaveshimself a wonderful out with the statement that characters and events have been condensed or hypothesized due to the "incomplete historical record." To Stone, that means there exists no evidence which proves the point he wants to stress, so he just makes it up.

Nixon begs comparisons to Stone's JFK, both in content and style. As with JFK, inconvenient facts are disregarded as unreliable, whereas wild theories become immutable laws of nature. Despite the profound lack of evidence that Nixon had prior knowledge of the Watergate break-in--rather than just covering it up later--this film assumes he was the principal conspirator.

JFK, with its infinitely compelling subject matter and straightforward dramatic structure--essentially eight witness interviews and a closing court-room argument amid numerous flashbacks--was the essence of narrative simplicity, augmented by a ferociously vivid style. Nixon seems forever in search of a motif to lend it shape. It ends up lurching around for three hours and 15 minutes, and never takes us further than its clumsy Freudian analysis.

Nixon feels like an abortive mistake of a movie, as though Stone began shooting the film before realizing he had nothing to say about his topic, and hoped that throwing in a kitchen sinkful of theories would impart depth to his character that simply isn't there. Gone is JFK's paranoid urgency, replaced by incessant whining steeped in self-pity. There's no fire in its belly, and the film manages the near-impossible task of being both sentimental and cynical, frenetic yet exceedingly dull.

A few saving graces rescue Nixon from the bottom of the crap heap, if only by moving it closer to the middle. Hopkins, who neither looks nor sounds much like Nixon, slyly twists that fact to his benefit.

In real life, Nixon became a caricature of himself by the end of his presidency, and though by the final scenes Hopkins plays right into that caricature, at least he's able to defer it for several hours.

Hopkins perfects the Nixonian mannerisms without giving them affectation. The flashes of an uncomfortable grin, the slouchy posture, the sweaty, shifty-eyed stamp of a man racked with self-doubts all call to mind the essence of Nixon's persona if not the image of him.

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