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.
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.