Here is the prologue: “This work is a fictional meditation concerning the character of and events in the history of Richard M. Nixon, who is impersonated in this film. The dramatist’s imagination has created some fictional events in an effort to illuminate the character of President Nixon. This film is not a work of history—or a historical recreation. It is a work of fiction, using as a fictional character a real person, President Richard M. Nixon—in an attempt to understand.” I have a teeny bit of bother about that, because Nixon was still very much alive when this was filmed. I am about as far as you can get from being a Nixon fan, but still, this is a portrait of a man on the edge of an emotional breakdown, falling to pieces before our eyes, ranting and raving, coming very close to blowing his brains out. Made me a wee bit uneasy, even with the disclaimer.
It was filmed at University of Michigan with a student crew, in seven days, in sequence. When it opened, none other than Alger Hiss, Nixon’s old possibly communist foe, attended a screening. There will probably never be a final answer on whether or not Hiss was a communist spy who passed intelligence to the Soviets, though the consensus seems to be leaning toward the notion that he was. It is very much a one-man show, and that one man is Philip Baker Hall. It was his breakout performance, moving him up in the eyes of casting directors from bit parts to major supporting roles, and even top billing now and then. And you can see why. It is a stunning tour de force, one of the best performances I’ve ever seen. You just can’t look away from him. I highly recommend this one.