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'Nixon' Paints Dual Portrait

Oliver Stone manages to praise and excoriate the 37th president

THE life and times of Richard Nixon have come to the Hollywood screen - expletives undeleted. They come by courtesy of Oliver Stone, who evidently considered the controversy over his explosive "JFK" a mere warm-up for future excursions into American history as seen through his proudly irreverent eyes.

Not that "Nixon" raises as much ruckus as "JFK" did with its wild speculations, volatile mixtures of fact and fiction, and quicker-than-the-eye editing. The new picture is calmer, more contemplative, even a bit melancholy in its portrait of an aspiring world-changer whose bravest plans are forever undercut by deep-lying personality flaws.

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In the true Stone tradition, though, it's bound to earn widespread attention while outraging just about everyone at some point in its three-hour running time.

Nixon admirers won't like its portrait of the president as a foul-mouthed bigot, spewing venom about minorities into his hidden White House microphones, and a heedless geopolitical killer, sending bombers to Southeast Asia with hardly a shrug. Nixon detractors won't like its compassion for the president as a three-dimensional human being who might have been a 20th-century giant if, as the Henry Kissinger character suggests, someone had just loved him enough when it counted.

My own view of the movie lies between these extremes. Stone does a masterly job of balancing two Nixons, the ruthless power-monger and the sadly vulnerable man, allowing each to flourish as a fully rounded screen figure. Yet here, as in many of his other movies, Stone pushes the envelope a little too far, allowing his own similarities to Nixon - a driven personality, a thirst for power in his profession, an attraction/repulsion relationship with the press - to skew his movie in the direction of synthetic drama rather than audacious "countermyth."

Stone's ability to both praise and excoriate Nixon may be related to the wobbly political views I've detected in his movies over the years. In pictures like "Platoon" and "Talk Radio" and "Born on the Fourth of July," he seems to be a Hollywood liberal, criticizing the political and military establishments for their conservative leanings. But the recent "Natural Born Killers" strikes me as antiliberal in the extreme, brimming with contempt for the media and scorn for the powerless members of society. The ideological oscillations in "Nixon" may reflect Stone's own uncertainties about the public sphere, suggesting that he's more interested than illuminated when it comes to political matters.

His weakness in this area shows most clearly in the film's worst sequence: a last-minute coda accompanying the final credits, when we hear Nixon bid farewell to the White House after his resignation over the Watergate scandal. Like countless others, I saw that event live on television and vividly remember the president being barely in control of his emotions as he vented his sorrow at the most wrenching moment of his career.

Putting an ornery twist on this scene, Stone makes it seem almost triumphant, with the departing chief executive giving inspirational advice in a rock-solid voice instead of groping for words through poorly concealed tears. It's an inexplicable choice, ending a richly complex film on an oddly simplistic note.

Out-of-kilter as it is, Stone's approach to this finale injects the only false ingredient into Anthony Hopkins's superb portrayal of the title character, which seamlessly blends Nixon's physical traits with the actor's own interpretive brilliance.

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The supporting cast is similarly strong: James Woods and J.T. Walsh as H.R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman, the president's top henchmen; Ed Harris as E. Howard Hunt, pictured as a weirded-out conspirator; Bob Hoskins as J. Edgar Hoover, given flagrantly gay mannerisms; E.G. Marshall as John Mitchell, steely and guilty in equal measure; Joan Allen and Mary Steenburgen as Nixon's long-suffering wife and discipline-conscious mother; and above all Paul Sorvino, who plays Kissinger as a smooth-talking concoction of Ivy League intelligence and Dr. Strangelove inscrutability.

In cinematic terms, "Nixon" is far more conservative than the daring "JFK," harking back to relatively straightforward Stone pictures like "Wall Street" and "Heaven and Earth." Still, it contains some breathtaking moments of filmic ingenuity, as when John F. Kennedy's assassination is conveyed in a sequence of exquisitely evocative shots.

Robert Richardson's cinematography is crisp and imaginative, if less dazzling than his work in the current "Casino," and John Williams's music lends a classical touch to the proceedings. Stone wrote the screenplay with Stephen J. Rivele and Christopher Wilkinson.

*"Nixon" has an R rating. It contains horrific images from the Vietnam War and a great deal of foul language.

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