The film jumps around quite a bit. If the story has a narrative center, I'd say it's the last few days Nixon was in the White House. It's a film of reflection, and as such most of it is told in flashbacks and even flashbacks within flashbacks. We see Nixon's childhood in Whittier, CA, and a bit of his teen years - his admiration for his older brother and the guilt he feels at the opportunity to go to college, which is only his because the older brother has died. We see a brief glimpse of him as a senator, during the Alger Hiss trial that made him famous. We see Nixon's unsuccessful presidential bid against Kennedy in 1960, his unsuccessful bid for governor, and his eventual election to the presidency in 1968. Through all of that campaigning, we see a man who is deeply vain, who depends far too much on the love of the people, and who takes losing very personally. He believes the 1960 election was stolen from him, and his concession speeches are the passive-aggressive rantings of a grown manchild.
His rise to power is an inevitability, though, and it's a bit frightening to see him hobnobbing with the people who have the power to put him in the White House. Like JFK before it, this film occasionally goes too far, in my opinion. I don't really like the implication that Nixon was involved - however tangentially - with the Kennedy assassination, or even that he knew it would happen beforehand. And if it's true, I don't want to know, for the sake of what remains of my faith in humanity. The things we know for a fact are complicated enough. The lies on top of lies and cover-ups on top of cover-ups make my head spin, and I have no idea how Nixon's administration got anything done when they had their hands so full with hiding what was going on from the public.
My hands-down favorite moment is the one pictured above, where Nixon is looking at the portrait of Kennedy. He says "When they look at you, they see what they want to be. When they look at me, they see what they are." In a lot of ways, JFK is an interesting companion film to Nixon. The film's version of Nixon repeatedly compares himself to Kennedy, and you can see how much he hates the fact that Kennedy was so beloved and he is so reviled. I don't mean this at all to be a political attack, but I can't help seeing a little of that in John McCain, who seems to not want Obama to be president more than he himself wants to be president. And his White House ambitions seem very much linked to a sense of entitlement - that he's been around for all these years and got rogered but good in 2000, so he's earned it. There's no reason this should be a disqualification for him being elected, and goodness knows I have no intention of comparing him substantively with Richard Nixon (Sarah Palin, on the other hand...). It's just an observation about his personality. He really, really seems to dislike and resent his young upstart opponent.
Fun stuff: Everyone in the world is in this movie! Stone has a knack for casting, and even the small roles were played by pretty big names. One of my faves is Madeline Kahn as the wife of then Attorney General John Mitchell. This movie also marks the start of my crush on James Woods. Sexy-ugly? You betcha!
I leave you with two clips. One from the actual movie, and another Seinfeld clip - this time of Morty's Nixonian departure from his Florida community.
Skip to 6:55.