Songwriter Kirsty MacColl’s “They Don’t Know (About Us)” makes a fitting title track for “Our Nixon.” The found-footage documentary, woven from 500 hours of Super 8 shot by Watergate convicts H.R. Haldeman, John Ehrlichman, and Dwight Chapin, isn’t just a portrait of the Nixon’s peculiar boys club. It’s a time capsule from a bygone age.
And, really, who would have thought the president’s chief of staff, domestic affairs advisor, and special assistant spent the early 1970s making home movies along with national policy, carrying cameras as well as clipboards? (Imagine Reggie Love and Rahm Emanuel uploading playful YouTube videos from the campaign trail.) Witnessed from our own era — an era of armed drones, hacker collectives, and PRISM, of staying “on message” and avoiding “gaffes” — this unorthodox raw material, collected by the FBI in the course of the Watergate investigation, seems almost quaint in its earnestness. “I was just waiting,” Chapin says in one of the film’s archival interviews, “to see what unfolded.”
What unfolded, of course, was a sustained campaign of political sabotage waged against the press, the Democratic Party, and all manner of radical activists. Nixon, whose presidency came to be shadowed by its own quiver of illegal wiretaps, burglaries, and empty slogans (“Peace with Honor”), did not acquire the nickname “Tricky Dick” for nothing. But the impeccable timing of “Our Nixon,” which arrives in select theaters today, invites comparison with the present moment despite the film’s hermetically sealed, direct cinema aesthetic. One wonders what people will make of recent administrations’ bad behavior in forty years, and of the public’s seeming acquiescence to their excessive deployment of power.
In this sense, director Penny Lane fashions an engaging counter-narrative of Nixon and his “great, silent majority” from the ephemera of history’s dustbin. Slight and straightforward, marking the years between the First Inaugural Address and the fateful resignation with sidelong images of the Pope’s red shoes and a pile of horseshit outside Paris’ Elysee Palace, “Our Nixon” nonetheless illuminates how much the passage of time and the aging of celluloid recalibrate how we remember the past.
Reputations change, and Nixon’s, almost inconceivably, seems to be on the rise. Turn on MSNBC and you won’t have to wait long to hear some commentator remark that Nixon (or Reagan) would be quarantined from today’s GOP, down with a severe case of moderation. It’s invariably meant as an insult to John Boehner’s merry band of misfits, but it also suggests an increasing recognition that Nixon’s foibles comprised something more complicated than the Oedipal tragedy of hubris described in the textbooks.
To that end, “Our Nixon” features not the sweaty, growling miser of the Kennedy-Nixon debates but a telegenic, savvy figure telephoning Aldrin and Armstrong on the surface of the moon; not the damaged monomaniac of Oliver Stone’s fictionalized biopic, but a man of no little good humor and (admittedly wayward) loyalty, who accepted Haldeman’s resignation and then professed his love. Lane’s ironic superimpositions — ’70s pop tunes, Nixon’s own ill-considered Oval Office statements, captured for posterity on those now-infamous tapes — cannot eliminate the original footage’s gentle admiration. The more nuanced picture that emerges from these juxtapositions surely makes for more exciting viewing than any angry hatchet job, however much it might be deserved.
Indeed, if many of Nixon’s values, policies, and actions now register as antithetical to a modern, democratic society (“Aristotle was a homo, we know that,” he offers by way of explaining the decline of Greek civilization. “So was Socrates.”), we would do well to remember that the ultimate responsibility for bad government lay in the consent of the governed.
Nixon beat McGovern in 1972 by an Electoral College margin of 521-17. “More than ever, Nixon now for you and me,” the insipid campaign jingle went, and if it strains credulity to think these words played well in Peoria, we would also do well to remember what “Our Nixon” makes clear — that the past is a far country, and they do things differently there.
“Our Nixon” opens today in select theaters.