A tale of two Tricky Dicks

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

It's not a deeply moving performance--there's very little pathos to it--but Hopkins has his moments. Near the end, while lamenting for the millionth time John Kennedy's superior personal charm, Nixon states, "They looked at Kennedy and saw who they wanted to be; they looked at me and saw what they were." That's as close as the film comes to suggesting the shameful sadness America imposed upon Nixon, and Hopkins makes the scene work even though it comes too far along to matter anymore.

Where Stone really misses the mark is in not emphasizing the supporting players. Edward Herrmann as Nelson Rockefeller and Paul Sorvino as a venal, shady Henry Kissinger are standouts, and Allen shows resolve as Pat; but, by and large, Stone never begins to exploit a full contingent of top-name actors (James Woods, Ed Harris, Bob Hoskins, David Hyde Pierce, and Powers Boothe, to name a few) playing notoriously weaselly bureaucrats--Haldeman, Dean, Hunt, Haig, and J. Edgar Hoover. Spotting these famous character actors in glorified walk-ons that, overall, add nothing to our understanding of Nixon, becomes the cinematic equivalent of "Where's Waldo," only not as challenging.

You really feel that if Stone had some kind of opinion about Nixon beyond some limp parallels to Lincoln, he might have generated the energy necessary to illuminate his psyche rather than merely reciting its unfathomable contradictions. If JFK was a jigsaw puzzle, one in which Stone sometimes forced the pieces to show the picture he wanted, Nixon is a Rubik's Cube--dense, confused, and even when finally solved, leaving you right where you started: staring at one monotone, opaque side at a time, never taking in a clear view of the whole picture.

Another petulant, overgrown boy whose facility with deadly toys outpaced his wisdom about how to use them was Richard of Lancaster (Ian McKellen), eventually King of England. Richard III, Shakespeare's Machiavellian triumph--about a man born without the appearance of a leader but with the greedy drive to conquer a nation--has always played well in times of social unrest, probably because of the healthy suspicion of the political classes it engenders. But it also works because Richard himself was perhaps Shakespeare's wittiest creation, a soul-less monster whose effortless manipulations of enemies and family members--which were usually one and the same--brought him to the height of power, only to have it lost because of his blinding cruelty.

The masterstroke of this adaptation is that while Shakespeare's poetry remains intact, the setting is moved from the middle ages to the swing era of the 1930s. That might seem to be a precious and affected gimmick, but instead it gives renewed significance to the modern implications of unchecked megalomania. Richard's wickedness no longer nestles in the detached safety of a brutal but remote time, but comes off as shockingly prophetic of Nazism.

In the title role, McKellen's drawn face and spindly gestures embody the droll barbarism of a panther stalking meek rabbits for lunch. (McKellen also co-wrote the screenplay.) His performance dominates an exceptional cast, but the major achievement of the film is its dissection of the political process across the ages--the repeated application of proven, destructive tactics.

Here was the original "Tricky Dick," whose self-loathing and resentment of those more beautiful than he fomented civil war for pride alone. He accomplished it not with White House plumbers and secret tape-recordings, but by wrapping the language of love around his poisoned intentions while advancing his plan for world domination. He was a true bastard in the political arena, but an engaging personality nonetheless.

That's something Stone fumbles with in his characterization. Sure, Richard III's ambitions were greater, and his deeds more evil, than Nixon's, but wouldn't it have been great to see Stone attempt to make a film as compelling and delicious as this?

Richard III. United Artists. Ian McKellen, Annette Bening, Robert Downey Jr., Nigel Hawthorne. Written by Ian McKellen and Richard Loncraine. Directed by Richard Loncraine. Opens early 1996.

Nixon. Hollywood Pictures. Anthony Hopkins, Joan Allen, Powers Boothe, Ed Harris. Written by Stephen J. Rivele, Christopher Wilkinson, and Oliver Stone. Directed by Oliver Stone. Opens December 20.

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