What parents need to know
Parents Need to Know
Parents need to know that the dialog in the Nixon White House is a veritable profanity-gate, with R-rated usage of the F-word, the S-word, the c-word, and numerous racial epithets (this is historically accurate, as the tapes revealed). Vintage newsreels and broadcast-TV footage show glimpses of corpses, explosions, and war atrocities in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Chile. There is talk of the sexual lives of leading figures such as Martin Luther King, Henry Kissinger, and the Kennedys. Meanwhile FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, heavily hinted as a homosexual, flirts with a waiter. This is a looong movie (even longer in the "Director's Cut"), so it's not the best choice for short-attention-span viewers.
What's the story?
August, 1974. A tormented President Richard Nixon (Anthony Hopkins) edges toward resignation due to the Watergate scandal. Flashbacks show how a great nation (and a potentially great statesman, Nixon) degenerated to this grotesquerie. Born to a poor, ultra-religious Quaker family, Nixon doggedly competed at football, earned a law degree, and entered politics to prove his worth. In government especially, Nixon obsesses over life's unfairness -- rivals like the Kennedys, born into eastern wealth, are American royalty, while he is disliked and discounted. After losing a close presidential race against JFK, Nixon seems finished for good. Yet, with the assassinations of both John F. and Robert F. Kennedy, Nixon comes back and wins the Oval Office in 1968, along with a hideous Vietnam war, race riots, problems with Cuba, student unrest -- all inherited from previous administrations. Even as Nixon works some diplomatic and domestic miracles, his paranoia and resentment (he feels the antiwar protesters are against him, personally) dominate, until Watergate boils over.
Is it any good?
Filmmaker Oliver Stone began shooting NIXON while the real-life subject was still alive (footage of Nixon's funeral is incorporated into the epilogue), and critics of the controversial writer-director (and Vietnam veteran) were apt to dismiss the biopic as sensational scandalmongering and conspiracy-thinking. This certainly is an interpretive psycho-drama, more so than a straightfoward this-happened-then-that-happened historical pageant (it sure isn't Watergate-for-Dummies, and young viewers in particular ought to do some homework on the history if they want to watch the film seriously). Some scenes are grounded in fact and taped Oval Office conversations, others pure speculation (wife Pat Nixon, a very private individual, here harangues Richard like a stand-in for all the protesters).
What is surprising is how much empathy Stone seems to have for a leader so widely hated -- especially by Hollywood and media types. Concurrent with his shameful and underhanded scheming, we see (or are told by other characters) that President Nixon confronted challenges as fearful as those faced by Abraham Lincoln, and he prevailed in peace talks with Communist superpowers Russia and China. "He had greatness within his grasp," says a mournful Henry Kissinger (Paul Sorvino). British actor Anthony Hopkins doesn't look or sound much like Nixon, but in his semi-impression he does conjure up the body language and discomfort of a driven, ambitious man who feels slighted and an outsider all his life because he wasn't born an elite -- like Kennedy. That's envy more than a few kids might relate to.
Explore, discuss, enjoy
Families can talk about the character of Richard Nixon, both in this dramatization and in reality. Do you think this movie is fair to him? Fact-check what parts really happened and what parts (like a conspiratorial meeting with a nameless, sinister Texas oilman, played by Larry Hagman) are Stone's imagination. For what it's worth, the Nixon family was unhappy with this movie. You can have kids research the life and career of the controversial statesman and the tangled Watergate scandal. Do they think the country (and the Congress) learned anything constructive from Nixon's downfall? Can you relate it to the Washington D.C. of today?