Why are there so few docus about Richard Nixon? An academic industry has grown up around his tenure, yet the president whose legacy permanently scarred the psyche of a nation has largely been ignored by nonfiction filmmakers. Fortunately, Penny Lane’s “Our Nixon” makes amends: A brisk, eye-opening documentary about the Nixon White House as seen from the inside, this triumph of editing is composed of homemovies shot by the president’s staff, accompanied by later TV interviews and priceless audio from the secret tapes, making it a must-see for anyone interested in Americana. Docu-friendly rep houses should be lining up.
The absence of cinematic Nixoniana is even more striking considering Watergate just passed its 40-year anniversary. Lane’s focus isn’t on the break-in and its ramifications, but on the entire presidency and the way Tricky Dick seeded an atmosphere of blind loyalty and paranoia whose outcome, almost inevitably, led to the collapse of America’s belief in the integrity of its chief executive. “Our Nixon” captures not only what went on in the White House on the most personal level, but how the spirit of a nation was refracted through 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., and it does so through the fortuitous discovery of more than 500 reels of footage shot by the president’s closest aides.
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H.R. Haldeman, John Ehrlichman and Dwight Chapin are names forever tarnished, like Nixon’s, by Watergate, yet before the scandal, they were respected career men standing at the president’s side. Ehrlichman was the senior aide, Haldeman the diehard partisan and Chapin, at 27, the whizkid. They were also homemovie buffs, filming hours and hours of Super 8, turning their cameras on everything from visiting dignitaries to the groundbreaking presidential trip to China, from Tricia Nixon’s wedding to relaxed social occasions in the White House gardens. Lane and chief editor Francisco Bello cherry-pick from this extraordinary archive in a bid to get at the very nature of these loyalists whose illegal activities in the name of their boss led to their imprisonment.
“Our Nixon” limits its focus to the years of the presidency, from 1969-74, in a trajectory that starts with fresh-faced optimism and ends with delusion and defensiveness. The positive achievements during the president’s tenure aren’t ignored, such as the Apollo 11 moon landing and the China visit, yet Lane is more interested in individuals than in great events, and she uses the players’ self-made images and their own words not to demonize them, but to understand them as products of their era.
Audio tracks come from later TV interviews and, most revealingly, the secret White House tapes, which have done more to damage Nixon’s posthumous reputation than even Watergate. His rant about how “All in the Family” was promoting homosexuality is a scream, yet it’s part and parcel of his obsession with identifying his enemies. The tapes also reveal his complete disregard for the truth, as when he professes ignorance of pilfered psychiatric records of Pentagon Papers mole Daniel Ellsberg; Ehrlichman respectfully reminds his boss that he most certainly knew of the theft.
While some may make comparisons with “The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu,” the parallel doesn’t quite work, since Lane’s docu is deliberately more personal and human. Although the “our” of “Our Nixon” refers to the three aides, the title also implies the electorate’s complicity; in 1972, Nixon won a whopping 49 states in the electoral college, and Lane, by implication, is shining a light on America as a whole in those years.
The documentary will play best to auds old enough to recall the period, who won’t need identities spelled out. Anyone wanting a comprehensive analysis should look elsewhere, as key figures such as Spiro Agnew are missing, and others, like Henry Kissinger, make fleeting appearances (Nixon complains about Kissinger’s flagrant infidelities).
Lane and Co. have done an additional service by making 4k digital transfers of the complete Super 8 archive in the Nixon Library, resulting in exceptional images that nonetheless maintain the feel of the original material. Music is well chosen, particularly the opening song, Tracey Ullman’s “They Don’t Know About Us.”