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Nixon (Election Year Edition)

Re-releasing Oliver Stone’s Nixon on DVD in 2008 seems like an odd decision by the folks over at Disney. It’s only been 13 years since the original release and it wasn’t exactly a huge hit in theaters or on DVD. By dubbing it the “Election Year Edition,” they likely want to tie into a general upturn in political interest and possibly the release later this year of Stone’s W. Despite the tenuous connection to the current political scene, this movie, while not without its strengths, is still a long slog for any but the most hardcore Nixon junkies or Stone fans. Rather then easing into the main problem with Oliver Stone’s Nixon, let’s just get it out of the way right at the beginning. It’s too damn long. In fact, it’s way too long. The extended DVD version is a whopping 213 minutes (that’s 3 hours and 33 minutes of longness.) The length of the movie could be excused by a wide scope, as in Gone with the Wind or Lord of the Rings, but Stone doesn’t give the picture enough scope to justify the running time. He simply hammers home the same couple of points over and over (including his favorite hobby horse, the Kennedy assassination) and by the end he leaves the viewer more exhausted than entranced.

Anthony Hopkins’ Nixon is a performance that could entrance. While physically looking nothing like Nixon, he gets the gestures and voice down pretty well and embodies the character that Stone is having him play. The character is a man so insecure that he throws away the most powerful position in the world seeking to destroy his enemies, real and imagined. Hopkins and Stone have made a pretty sympathetic Nixon, without actually glossing over any of his shortcomings. He is, at times, a tragic man who ignores his better qualities and gives himself over to fear, pettiness, and bullying. It’s a great performance by Hopkins.

Hopkins' performance doesn’t stand alone, either. Joan Allen as his long suffering wife Pat, James Woods as the scheming H.R. Haldeman, J.T. Walsh as John Ehrlichman, Bob Hoskins as J. Edgar Hoover, and a score of others do as well as they can in conveying the story that Stone and co-screenwriters, Stephen Rivele and Christopher Wilkinson, have developed. Unfortunately the story is oddly unbalanced. While someone without a fairly good working knowledge of the players and events of the 1960’s and 1970’s political landscape will end up unsure of references and the meaning of entire scenes, other concepts are pummeled into our heads without mercy.

Also without mercy is Stone’s well known love of camera tricks. Almost no stone is left unturned in putting together the non-linear order of the film. Therefore the same scene may come at you in color, black and white, full of people, no people, with a quick flashback in washed out film thrown in for good measure. It does increase the power of one or two scenes but after the second hour of this, it gets a little tiring.

Stone is a filmmaker with tremendous skills, but in this case, he misses by not focusing a little more tightly on Nixon and worrying less about showy camera work and editing trinkets. Hopkins performance deserves a far better and more coherent story than he gets from his director. Many characters repeat the same theme during the movie that Nixon’s shortcomings were a real shame as he had the skills to be truly great. The same could be said of Oliver Stone. The 2-disc “Election Year Edition” of Nixon is being released concurrently with a Blu-ray version. The DVD has been re-mastered and the audio is remixed. I haven’t seen the previous versions of the DVD, so I can’t comment on how this is different, but with the exception of the re-mastered picture, sound, and one mediocre extra, I don’t think anything has changed. You can’t view the original 190 minute theatrical cut of the film, the only version on either the DVD or Blu-ray is the 213 minute extended cut.

Although the movie is very long, it is not split onto two discs, which is nice. The entire movie is on the first disc with all of the extras (except the commentaries) on the second disc. There are two commentary tracks, but the joke is on you in that Oliver Stone does both of them. It’s not that they are bad, but there are looooong gaps in both commentaries and it really should have been limited to one that kept pace rather than two that are pretty fragmented. He also has the sometimes annoying habit of ironically chuckling at dialogue in the movie. He does, however, add some interesting historical and movie-making tidbits. The main problem is that watching the movie and then listening to both commentaries would take close to eleven hours and they are just not worth it. Both commentaries are holdovers from the previous DVD releases.

The second disc starts off with the only new extra included with this release, a 35-minute documentary called Beyond Nixon, directed by Oliver Stone’s son, Sean Stone. It’s not particularly entertaining and certainly not the reason anyone with a previous version of the DVD should double dip with this release. Although it includes numerous clips from the film, it isn’t a making-of featurette at all, instead it covers some of the big moments in Nixon’s presidency while shoehorning in some comments about the movie. It really doesn’t make a lot of sense. The first section is a discussion of the movie by people who defend it (including consultant and former Nixon Administration attorney John Dean) and those who dislike it (columnist Robert Novak.) Humorously, at one point Dean notes that the movie is “fair and accurate” while another defender says that it is “not history, it’s a movie.” They try to have it both ways, saying it’s true but having an out anytime they put something in that isn’t in the historical record. After the comments on the film, there is a section by some of the same people on Nixon’s presidency. It may help people who have no idea what Watergate or the Cambodia bombings were, but they only skim the surface and only cover two or three major events.

More interesting by far is an almost hour-long appearance by Stone on the Charlie Rose Show that is included. It was filmed in 1995 at the time of the original theatrical release of Nixon. It’s preferable to listening to the commentary tracks and Stone talks a lot about Nixon and the movie and his opinions and views on both. The movie actually sounds more exciting and interesting when Stone talks about it than it is in reality. It’s one of those situations where when you hear what a filmmaker was trying to do, some of his artistic choices in the film make more sense.

The final major extra is a set of deleted scenes and here is the biggest head scratcher on a DVD I’ve seen in awhile. The deleted scenes were clearly brought over with no changes from a previous DVD release that didn’t include the “extended cut” provided in this release. So, 90% of the “deleted” material is included in the version of the film provided in the DVD. There are 10 scenes in all and only two very brief scenes were not added back in as far as I could tell. Each scene has a one to three minute into by Stone who explains the scene and then says something like “I really hated to cut this scene.” It’s almost comical since you then are shown a scene that you clearly remember from the movie you just watched. Stone also provides an eight-minute “introduction” and a three minute “closing” to the deleted scenes section. The introduction barely touches on the deleted scenes and is more a discussion by Stone of his overall philosophy in making the film and specific technical details about the production. It’s the closest thing to a “making of” that the disc includes.

The only other extra is the original trailer. The re-mastered video does look good, so if you don’t have a copy of this movie and the material really interests you, it’s a good version to pick-up. Unfortunately, since the deleted scenes are redundant and the new documentary is unimpressive, the extras on this version are pretty weak and don’t justify an upgrade if you already have a version.