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Exorcising A Demon Oliver Stone’s ‘Nixon’ Will Force Upon Americans A History Lesson They Might Rather Avoid

Beth Pinsker Dallas Morning News

Oliver Stone is finally ready to confront the legacy of Richard Nixon. Are we?

Tommy Lee Jones, who had nothing to do with the director’s new movie, summed up the national mood in a 1993 interview: “Why should there be a movie about Nixon? We’ve seen it all on TV. What are we going to learn from a movie about him?”

Now, Stone aims to exorcise the Nixon demon from our collective consciousness.

“I find that there’s a certain group of people - ‘60s liberals, so to speak - who have a hatred for Nixon that has become almost a handle for their lives,” Stone says. “I think we need to get beyond the emotionalism of that period and just try to understand the man, and by so doing, that will free up the present debate.”

And debate they will.

Because “Nixon,” which opens nationally Wednesday, is an Oliver Stone movie, it’s a controversy in the making. Because its subject is the root of modern political cynicism, it’s a minefield of vituperative opinion. Because it’s a $43 million Disney release, it’s a cog in the world’s most aggressive marketing machine. And because the movie clocks in at three hours and 15 minutes, it demands a committed audience.

“It’s his magnum opus,” says James Woods, who first worked for Stone on 1986’s “Salvador” and now co-stars as “Nixon’s” Bob Haldeman. “It is absolutely a measure of Oliver Stone’s maturity without a doubt. I’ve experienced that more than anyone in this film, because he and I started together, and now we’ve come a full circle.”

A few years ago, “Nixon” wouldn’t have been possible. Although Stone started developing the movie while the ex-president was alive, the film probably never would have happened had the former president not died in April 1994. “He was a very tough litigator,” the filmmaker says. And after his “JFK,” Nixon wasn’t a big fan.

Stone had strong feelings as well. He started out a Nixon supporter like his Republican father, but grew disillusioned while serving in Vietnam.

“I went back and forth on Nixon from liking him in the early days to believing he would end the war in 1968,” he says. “I hated him by 1972-73 and wanted him out of office. The Pentagon papers - I was a veteran at that point - that was pretty surprising, cynical stuff. And then the Watergate thing: It was clear something had happened and he was dragging it out and it was just (expletive). …

“I don’t think I could have made this movie before. I needed time. I had to make some other films. Each film has led me to the next film. There’s been a growth process, definitely. I don’t think I was able to do a film of this scope before. I had to do “Natural Born Killers” first,” he says, laughing.

He wrestled with Vietnam in “Platoon” (1986), “Born on the Fourth of July” (1989) and “Heaven and Earth” (1993). In 1991, he mythicized the counterculture in “The Doors” and explored the conspiracies of the Kennedy assassination in “JFK.” He waxed poetic about the vagaries of the media in “Talk Radio” (1988) and “Natural Born Killers” (1994). And he plumbed the depths of old-fashioned greed in “Wall Street” (1987).

Add those elements together and you have the ingredients for understanding Nixon, our confused, inarticulate, ambitious, scheming, ruthless and brilliant 37th president.

And in the movie, you understand him through the prism of Stone’s signature style, which comes on strongest in the fictional parts of the film: secret meetings in Dallas with Cubans and oil barons; a clandestine meeting between John Dean and Watergate burglar Howard Hunt on a bridge on a rainy night; Nixon’s moments of quiet desperation while listening to the “smoking gun” tape while he’s drunk and drugged the night before he resigns.

Using flashbacks and a twisted chronology, the film builds a surprising sense of pity for the pathetic figure saying goodbye to his staff in his final moments in the White House.

Debates about the film started when Stone cast Anthony Hopkins in the title role. The Welsh Oscar winner looks nothing like Nixon, sounds nothing like him and certainly acts nothing like the rigidly isolated president.

“Feel my head,” Hopkins says, calling attention to the stark coiffure - part shaved and part dyed white - he’s sporting to play Picasso in his next film, “Surviving Picasso.” Playfully inviting a reporter to verify his stubble, Hopkins, who did not much resemble Nixon in the first place, now looks absolutely nothing like the dark, jowly Californian whose sweaty upper lip and gruff voice are so familiar to Americans.

“Initially, I asked, ‘Why are you casting me?”’ he says. “Oliver said, ‘I’ve seen you play in ‘Remains of the Day’ and ‘Shadowlands.’ You seem to be an outsider, a repressed loner. That’s just what I need. I don’t care that you aren’t American. I think it takes a foreign actor to play Nixon because you don’t have any judgments.”’

Hopkins, 58, developed a deep understanding of the character from a lifetime of playing difficult men, from Hannibal Lechter to Hitler (in the 1981 miniseries “The Bunker”). “Maybe I’m politically incorrect to say the great monsters of history were great, but they had greatness. I don’t think Nixon was an evil man, he was just corruptible by power, as all of us are.”

The irrepressible Woods was another strange selection for Nixon; he plays the controlled guard dog Bob Haldeman. “Oliver didn’t want me for this part,” says the actor, who eventually convinced Stone to give him a chance. “What he knew would work is while I was trying to be this straight-edged guy, my natural intensity would bubble up.”

Paul Sorvino (who does a dead-on Henry Kissinger), Joan Allen (as a bitter Pat Nixon), J.T. Walsh (as a subdued John Ehrlichman) and “Frasier’s” David Hyde Pierce (as the eager John Dean) round out the inner circle.

And the rest, as they say, was history.

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