Culled from 500 reels of Super 8 film and news footage and masterfully edited into a story of hope and disillusionment, Penny Lane and Brian L. Frye’s documentary “Our Nixon” is an uncommon look at Richard Nixon’s presidency from the point of view of three of his closest advisors and conspirators — Dwight Chapin, John Ehrlichman and H. R. Haldeman, all of whom served prison time because of Watergate and the resulting fallout.
The film, which premieres on CNN tonight at 9pm before heading to a theatrical release from Cinedigm on August 30th, involves a certain amount of cinematic ventriloquism. Of the three, only Chapin is still alive, and either way the film is comprised entirely of archival material, from the Barbara Walters segment in which she asks Halderman about his signature hairstyle to the audio from the Nixon White House tapes. None of the men speak for themselves outside of what has already been put on the record — but that’s plenty, and the film flips between the self-documentation they were doing of Nixon’s time in office and the interviews they did sometimes decades later, rueful, reflective, critical or defiantly unbowed.
The adherence to this pure collage concept makes “Our Nixon” a distant cousin of Andrei Ujica’s brilliant “The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu,” though what’s being examined here isn’t the tireless and ultimately myopic and doomed self-mythologizing of that film but the more specific experience of being in someone’s circle of trust, as much as Nixon had one, and the result is more intimate and more melancholy that ironic. “He kept watertight compartments of information,” an older Chapin observes in an interview years later, one of several indications that the paranoia for which the President became famous extended even to those closest to him, to those we hear him speaking frankly with via excerpts from Nixon’s White House tapes.
The footage from which “Our Nixon” is primarily sculpted is essentially home movie footage, albeit home movie footage that encompasses some of the era’s major landmarks, from Nixon’s dealing with a giant march on Washington in protest of the war (“I bet Bob a dollar television wouldn’t show the raunchy ones,” the President says of the signs via audio) to his visit to China, during which press secretary Ron Ziegler unknowingly took a giant bite of an unpeeled tangerine. These momentous moments are seen from the outside via media coverage, then reflected through the personal experiences of the three men, via the grainy film they shot themselves, offering some rare, unguarded moments from someone whose first year in office, as observed by Dan Rather in a news report from the time, was all about “control” and “a ready smile to cover worry.”
Nixon takes a breather on Air Force One; he gets upset about Henry Kissinger’s reputation with the ladies; he hilariously rants to Ehrlichman about how “All in the Family” is “glorifying homosexuality”: “You know what happened to the Greeks — homosexuality destroyed them!” He’s re-elected by a landslide, even as a story about a break-in at the the Democratic National Committee headquarters begins to pick up steam.
And as Watergate begins to eclipse the story and the footage is no longer so sunny, the traits that make Nixon seem so frayedly human in the earlier parts of the film become part of what takes him down — though not before Chapin, Ehrlichman and Halderman are first forced to resign. “I’ve never laughed as hard,” Chapin reflects toward the beginning of “Our Nixon” of his time working in the White House, and the most commendable part of Frye and Lane’s eerie film is the way it manages to cast a familiar story of a political downfall as a more personal, and emotional, tragedy for the three men at its heart.