“I’m Not a Crook”

During the 1995 holiday season, the last thing audiences wanted to see was a controversial biopic about the most disgraced president in U.S. history. Oliver Stone’s NIXON captures the mystery and dichotomy behind the man and the turbulent era in which he led the country. But for all its Shakespearean tragedy, NIXON would have been a better film had Stone ditched his tricks for once. All the fancy camerawork and MTV-style editing only obscure what is undoubtedly one of the most fascinating characters in American history.

John Williams’ underrated score is a study in irony. While the images onscreen may say one thing, Williams’ music reminds us of what is brewing behind the scenes. The stern and commanding main theme in the trumpet (given rare prominence in the theatrical trailer below) is softened for the flashback scenes of Nixon’s childhood. As Nixon emerges triumphant at the Miami 1968 convention, Williams’ music bursts forth in orchestral splendor and then quickly reverts to the pulsating figures that run throughout the score, reminding us that nothing has changed and more turbulence lies ahead.

Nixon soundtrack
“Miami Convention, 1968”
“The Meeting With Mao”

The music is as dark and conflicted as Nixon himself, sort of the antithesis of Williams’ score for JFK. If JFK conveyed the promise of Camelot at the beginning of the 1960s (and the pain and anguish when the kingdom came tumbling down following the assassination), NIXON represents the flip side of the musical coin at the end of the decade. There is an air of sadness at Nixon’s historic meeting with China’s Chairman Mao and the rising string intervals tell us that no matter how much good this meeting may accomplish, it is not enough.

Reviled by many of the historical personalities involved, NIXON lost the box office election. The studio overestimated the American public’s desire to see a political drama about a “crook,” especially at Christmastime. However, those that did see it were rewarded with exceptional performances by Anthony Hopkins and a pitch-perfect portrayal of Pat Nixon by Joan Allen. While maybe not top-tier Williams, the score works effectively in the film.

    1. I’ve read over and over at how it’s a tough listen. I never found it to be so. And the CD itself is more consistent than JFK. I just wish you could still access the Williams interview on the enhanced CD. I never did watch it and now technology has surpassed the CD and won’t allow you to access it. Bummer.

  1. Darth Nixon! I love this score. The opening credits with William’s brooding music that crescendos with total gloom as the camera pans up the iron fence and reveals the White House. Love it love it love it!

  2. Several years ago I tried to comb through the entire catalogue of films that Williams scored (I got pretty far), and that’s how I discovered the strange trio of Oliver Stone films he did. NIXON, though flawed, hooked me in an inexplicable way. I became fascinated with the man himself, and have been ever since. Despite Stone’s fairly harsh portrayal of him, his story and Hopkins’ unbelievable performance evoked a surprising amount of empathy and interest in me for probably the most hated president in history.

    As for the score, it’s a rich one full of great themes, ranging from the brooding to the nostalgic, to that great tragic Mao piece. It may be an acquired taste for some, but for this Williams fanatic, his dramatic fare from the ’90s (NIXON, SLEEPERS, ROSEWOOD) sure makes for a hearty aural feast.

    1. Not a big fan of SLEEPERS, film or score. Have seen the film many times (not sure why) and certainly know the score (it was an Oscar nominee after all), but I find little there to grab on to. That’s not to say the score is without merit, there are some fine moment. But I don’t think it’s one of his stronger efforts. As for ROSEWOOD, I think I’ve listened to bits and pieces of it, but I’ve never seen the film. So here’s one to discover. Williams’ score was a replacement after Wynton Marsalis’ version was thrown out. Marsalis reworked his into the album Reeltime.

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