The thing about biographical movies is that for the actors playing people who were actual Real People In History, and particularly for recent Real People, there is a fine line you have to walk between “this is who that person sounded like” and “this is who that person actually was.” People become famous for their verbal tics and how they generally hold themselves, but that’s not who they were, not when you get right down to it. Any person is infinitely more complex than their public persona, and a good actor works to capture the person’s interior life (as best they are able) and use that to bring out the public side of things.
Or they just say “fuck it” and go one way or the other.
Anthony Hopkins’ performance in Nixon is a good example of the second choice. It’s an amazing performance, all the moreso because Hopkins looks and sounds nothing like Richard Nixon. (This is all the more notable because Dan Hedaya shows up briefly in the film, and Hedaya’s similarity to Nixon is so pronounced it eventually led to him being cast as Nixon in the underrated comedy Dick.) Hopkins doesn’t bother trying to imitate Nixon because there wouldn’t be any point. Even his Welsh accent keeps cropping up in Nixon’s famous lines.
However, about twenty minutes into Nixon, something remarkable happens: you just forget about Hopkins being not-Nixon and instead completely buy into him as Nixon. It happens because Anthony Hopkins is a fucking great actor and concentrates on the driving forces that animated Nixon – he gets at the core of Nixon’s incredible sense of resentment that drove him, but also Nixon’s sense of superiority at the same time. But Hopkins’ Nixon is resolutely human rather than simply a one-dimensional monster. Hopkins’ Nixon doesn’t just seek dominance but approval: the scene where Nixon tries to engage with the protestors at the Lincoln Memorial is framed by Stone as simply tragic, a microcosm of the larger tragedy that was Nixon’s wasted potential (one of the smartest Presidents ever, but see what use that intelligence went to); his sense of superiority is driven at least in part by his strong sense of loyalty (he is resolutely faithful to his wife). Hopkins’ Nixon is flawed, but sympathetic, and to make Nixon a sympathetic figure rather than a devil is the stronger artistic choice.
Of course, Hopkins is backed up by a fucking murderer’s row of acting talent: Joan Allen, James Woods, Powers Boothe, Paul Sorvino, Ed Harris, Bob Hoskins, David Hyde Pierce, and J.T. Walsh as, respectively, Pat Nixon, Bob Haldeman, Alexander Haig, Henry Kissinger, E. Howard Hunt, J. Edgar Hoover, John Dean and John Erlichman. But wait: there is more: David Paymer, Kevin Dunn, Mary Steenburgen, Saul Rubinek, Madeline Kahn, Edward Herrman – even John C. McGinley makes an appearance at the top of the film in a fake “school career” educational film. (Don’t ask me to explain why Stone decided that had to be in there. It’s metaphorical somehow, though, you can be sure of that. Still, Oliver Stone is inscrutable.) Interestingly, most of these actors go more to the “impersonation” school than Hopkins does (Sorvino’s Kissinger is particularly dead-on), but that choice actually grounds Hopkins’ method – by surrounding him with actors doing more faithful interpretations of the people they’re portraying, his un-Nixon Nixon gradually becomes “real” because he’s constantly interacting with more genuine-ish articles.
But ultimately Nixon is about a man’s relationship with power – it is not for nothing that Stone (who is not a subtle person, really) begins by quoting the Bible (“what hath a man gained, if he hath lost his soul?”) and then spends twenty minutes exploring Nixon’s horrible, horrible childhood and his horrible parents who didn’t love him and how this forged Nixon into a man who resented those who were loved (Kennedy more than anybody) and envied that love and was never sure if he had it – not even from his wife – and so sought power above all. It’s a far more entertaining trip to the dark side than George Lucas ever envisioned (and yes, of course Lucas wrote Star Wars with Nixon metaphors firmly in mind) and far more complex and realized. When Stone directed W., he made George W. Bush out to be a pawn in other people’s games; Stone’s Nixon, on the other hand, knows exactly what he’s playing and why.