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 clichŽ 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.

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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