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I stated in my recent review of The Doors on Blu-ray that I felt as though I’d grown out of director Oliver Stone. His films simply don’t hold the same power over me they did when I was younger and more impressionable, and his more recent work isn’t exactly awe-inspiring. I said that my two favourite films among the man’s oeuvre were his twin breakthroughs, Platoon and Salvador. These films are fierce and honest real life portrayals crafted by a fierce and honest young man. Re-watching Stone’s second wave features, which I see beginning with The Doors and culminating with Natural Born Killers, has proven a frustrating exercise (though I haven’t re-visited JFK in a long time, perhaps that one stands up).

Nixon: Extended Director's Cut
I say all this to people, but I don’t admit that I’d never seen Nixon in its entirety, until now that is. Nixon came one year after the overdone mess that was Natural Born Killers, and despite not learning anything from the unfathomable and self-indulgent length of JFK, Stone finally found a nice balance between his wacky and arty insert stuff, and good old fashion, lens to stock filmmaking. There are still plenty of over the top visuals, but this time they serve the story.

Stone seems to have fashioned Nixon's structure around two solid biographical skeletons, that of the AFI’s favourite movie ever, Citizen Kane, and Spike Lee’s masterpiece Malcolm X (a film which really should’ve earned its classic status by now). The basic structure is very similar to Kane, including the end to middle to beginning storytelling, as well as the newsreel style montages, and the pace and general momentum is thunderous even at its epic length, just like Lee’s super effective saga. Nixon does eventually overstay its welcome (though I imagine this wasn’t a problem for the theatrical cut as much as this director’s cut), but it’s a fine effort on Stone’s part. Spike Lee wins the pacing battle, but Stone’s film’s woven time structure is immaculate, even if it is a little hard to follow at points.

Not really knowing what to expect from the film, one which hasn’t enjoyed the initial or lasting popularity of other Oliver Stone films, I’m most surprised by the degree to which notorious political lefty Stone goes out of his way to make Nixon out as a misunderstood man. It would be very easy to make Nixon into a villain, because his most notorious actions were very villainous, but during the course of this Grand Canyon of an epic even the most liberal viewers will likely find their hearts bleeding for Tricky Dick. But to the same token, Nixon’s vices and cruelties aren’t smoothed over. Stone doesn’t ask for forgiveness on Nixon’s behalf, he simply asks us to see the monster as a man. Based on the early trailers I don’t see Ollie giving George W the same benefit of the doubt, though it does appear he’s going with another actor that looks nothing like his subject.

Nixon: Extended Director's Cut
Anthony Hopkins’ version of Nixon is an effective mix of impersonation and honesty without caricaturing. Everyone and their mother can do a Nixon impersonation (two peace signs in the air, and repeat “I am not a crook”), and anyone and their mother could’ve played this role like a cartoon character. Stone wanted to make a movie about a person, not a hook nosed cretin with wriggling jowls, and Hopkins plays the character as a person, ensuring that the audience absorbs this story rather than the public opinion. The rest of the cast is populated by 1995’s over-40 A-list, and they all ring the bell in their own way. Most of the performances are just this side of hammy (Bob Hoskins), but in Stone’s stylized context it works. James Woods is probably the standout, but only barely.

Video


I was expecting another average catalogue title Blu-ray, but my expectations were an underestimate. Stone uses about eighty billion different film stocks, and each one of them has their own thing to offer. Though they’ve been artificially aged, and are brimming with grain, I’d say the early life, black and white flashbacks are the transfer’s most impressive moment. The slim sections of the film I caught on cable television entirely lost Stone’s intended subtlety in stock change. Often in television definition it's impossible to tell the stock has changed at all. In high-definition the changes in clarity, colour quality, and grain are clear as day. The cleaner scenes do suffer a bit of noise in warm colours and solid whites, but the details remain incredibly sharp, and the blacks are very impressive. You won’t be missing all that sweat on Dick’s upper lip this time around.

Audio


Stone doesn’t spend quite as much time messing with abstract sound effects this time around, but there are still plenty of big surround moments for a largely dialogue based feature. Often the track effectively becomes a mono track, which works very well for the low-fi stock, and which leads to some shocking surround spills. Unfortunately for those of us that want to show off our surround systems the centric nature of the track encompasses a whole lot of the film. John Williams’ gigantically embellished score is sometimes sadly corralled into this mono position (especially during the reinstated Richard Helms scene). Overall a good track, but an inconsistent one.

Nixon: Extended Director's Cut

Extras


In direct opposition to his lack-luster Doors commentary, Oliver Stone mostly scores in tone with these dual commentary tracks. There are a lot of blank spaces (the film is three and a half hours long), but when Stone finds it in himself to actually speak it is with conviction, and he smartly balances his focus between the making of the film and the real life politics. Stone fully covers many of the historical intricacies he only alludes to in the film. The second track, the new one, is the better and fuller track, but the problem of empty space plagues both tracks. This is one case where I think I’d prefer an editing together of both tracks, even if it would make them non scene specific.

‘Beyond Nixon’ is a finely tuned featurette that puts the whole film into historically factual context for the dimwits out there like me. The thirty-five minute doc mostly covers Nixon’s presidency, with only minor focus on his extra presidential life, and a short critical glance at the film itself. Experts, politicians, historians, intellectuals, and even some of the people that were there walk us through the sorted tale, set to archive footage and scenes from the film. It’s a bit too short to really cover the entirety of the presidency, but it covers the big points like the election, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Watergate. Still, I could’ve watched at least thirty minutes more.

Nixon: Extended Director's Cut
Then we’ve got twelve deleted scenes with Stone’s introduction. Twelve more scenes, adding up to almost an hour with the introductions? That’s a lot of Nixon. Actually, not so much, because almost all of this stuff is included in the extended director’s cut. Someone at Disney probably should’ve looked into that before they included this extra from the original DVD release. Stone rambles to such a degree that he’s actually fade-cut edited, but he still manages some tasty nuggets of info about his filmic inspirations, which includes D.W. Griffith, Eisenstein, and of course, Orson Wells (I knew it!). I would’ve greatly preferred that Stone’s little face-to-face chats were offered as alternate commentary tracks to the scenes. The scenes themselves are not presented in HD, or even anamorphic widescreen.

And just in case Stone’s two commentary tracks and deleted scene introductions weren’t enough information for you, you can watch almost an hour of the director speaking to everyone’s favourite low-key, black backdrop interviewer Charlie Rose. Rose is always a good interviewer (his interview of Guillermo Del Toro, Alfonso Cuarón, and Alejandro González Iñárritu is a must see), and Stone always has something to say, so the interview isn’t a bore, but man, was I tired of hearing about Richard Nixon by then. The sound of the interview is terrible, but mostly understandable.

Things end with a trailer, and trailers for many other Disney Blu-ray releases.

Nixon: Extended Director's Cut

Overall


We can’t watch the tragic tale of Richard Nixon today without comparing it to the stories of every President since. In some ways Dick’s little ‘missteps’ seem kind of, well, quaint in comparison to recent, um, ‘dealings’. Oliver Stone’s film stands up mostly as an act of good storytelling, even if it is about an hour too long. This Blu-ray release is a good time to see the film again, or, if you’re like me, see it for the first time, though the overwhelming length might make a purchase an iffy advisement.

Big thanks to CHUD.com reviewer James Kimble for the screen caps. You can read his review of the DVD release right here.


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