The documentary “Our Nixon” by Penny Lane serves as a bit of a complication to the popular narrative of Richard Nixon as our most scandalized and scheming of Presidents. While it doesn’t seek to alter this narrative, it does attempt to add another layer to the story, a perspective offered by those closest to Nixon, and those who fell the hardest. The results are an illuminating and often hilarious portrayal of the man and his myth and those who surrounded him.
The film is comprised entirely of archival footage from television news reports, interviews and the Super 8 home movies of Nixon’s closest advisors, H.R. “Bob” Haldeman, John Erlichman and Dwight Chapin. This young and energetic group of staffers were known for constantly shooting footage everywhere they went, from China to the Vatican, and these tapes were seized by the FBI during the Watergate investigation and kept in a vault for 40 years. Eventually they were released and made public domain (without much fanfare), and Lane and her co-producer Brian L. Frye were the first to make a video transfer of these tapes. The Super 8 footage was silent, and as Lane described in the Q&A at our screening, she wanted to tell the story that these films were trying to.
Though Nixon is ostensibly the star of the film, it focuses much more on Haldeman, Erlichman and Chapin and their personal experiences with the President, gleened from TV interviews and other voice recordings (Haldeman died in 1993 and Erlichman died in 1999). There are recordings of many personal phone calls between Haldeman (Nixon’s Chief of Staff and right hand man), as they discuss everything from Nixon’s latest news appearance, Henry Kissinger’s loose lips, war protestors on the Mall, Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon papers, and culminates in Haldeman’s eventual resignation and prosecution. Listening to Nixon tell him multiple times “I love you” during this call is oddly poignant and heartbreaking, his true affection and friendship shining through. And that is often the tone of “Our Nixon,” oddly poignant, as we are taken into this intimate and unseen world of Nixon’s lighter side (dancing with his daughter at her wedding, cracking wise at White House events).
Working with archival footage is always an interesting undertaking, because you can only shape the story so far as what you have to work with. The story of the footage must reveal itself to you. Lane creates a sophisticated and finely wrought piece of storytelling, weaving together the news reports, voice over, secretly recorded tapes from Nixon’s office, recorded phone calls and interviews in order to tell her story, which isn’t necessarily to explain what they did or explore their guilt. Instead, one comes away with the sense that these men were sort of well-meaning but misguided individuals making stupid decisions; that it wasn’t so much of a smoky back room conspiracy that we imagine it to be. Erlichman says that Nixon, the ultimate control freak, embroiled himself in these shady goings on because he needed to be involved in all of the minutia in order to control it. That is made especially clear with how he bugged his own office but only told certain people about it—carefully regulating and controlling information that was his eventual downfall.
“Our Nixon” is often a laugh-out-loud funny affair, whether it’s intentional (Nixon’s corny White House jokes) or not (Nixon declaring he wants to “prosecute the prick” responsible for leaking classified documents; his assessment that homosexuality led to the downfall of the Greek empire; his review of “All in the Family”). But it’s also a celebration and preservation of a uniquely 1970s aesthetic, and images of singing groups and cheering fans at rallies and the Republican National Convention are yes, delightfully cheesy and also somewhat disconcerting. But it’s important to remember this other side that also existed. While “Our Nixon” is not trying to exonerate or prove anything other than what has already happened, it is trying to understand this other side of the Nixon administration, not necessarily a warm and fuzzy side of Nixon, but one of a complicated man whose own foibles led to the downfall of his empire and also his personal relationships. [A-]
This is a reprint of our review from the 2013 L.A. Film Festival.