REVIEW: Our Nixon [2013]

Score: 8/10 | ★ ★ ★

Rating: NR | Runtime: 84 minutes | Release Date: August 30th, 2013 (USA)
Studio: Cinedigm Entertainment Group
Director(s): Penny Lane

“You felt as if you were in a brilliantly lighted, badly run television show”

As someone who wasn’t born during Richard Nixon‘s administration, it is somewhat unfair to just conjure images of Deepthroat a la All the President’s Men or bank robbers like in Point Break. Tricky Dick has become the butt of jokes—the only president to ever resign his post and quite possibly the most infamous to have held office. He bugged himself, unwittingly had those personal tapes become his political demise, and walked into the fire under his own volition. I could seek out the newsreel footage from the time or find snippets of those incriminating recordings, but is there really anything more to the man or his cabinet besides the label of crook? Perhaps not, but the fact he had three supporters back then proves it’s possible.

This is where filmmaker Penny Lane enters the story after discovering 500 reels of Super 8 footage taken by Nixon’s chief of staff H.R. Haldeman, domestic affairs adviser John Ehrlichman, and special assistant Dwight Chapin had been languishing for four decades in a government vault. What they showed were home videos taken by the trio documenting their business trips, vacations, and behind the scenes efforts on official business. Television broadcasts by Nixon switch over to the Super 8 angle off-camera from the side now—black and white stoicism replaced by color relaxation. The film captures the smiles and humor shared in the White House during these years, an attitude that shows comradery on the surface and perhaps hubristic frivolity beneath.

Spliced together with archival newsbreaks and interviews of the three years after their jail sentences expired, Lane has parsed the chain of events we all know from the other side. We see a level of comfort and trust that seems so much less menacing than the one conspiratorial scandals dictate. The subjects are quick to admit Nixon’s cabinet was somewhat dysfunctional and the tapes describe how only a handful ever called him with “yes man” back pats after televised appearances, but you can’t deny the validity of their mentioning how those were the best years of their lives. Maybe they were because Nixon micromanaged the dissemination of information so thoroughly, though. Not everyone knew what was happening. Almost no one knew they were being recorded.

With moments shining earned accolades on Nixon’s achievements, (putting a man on the moon, visiting China, and ending the Vietnam War), some say Our Nixon is a puff piece glorifying a man universally reviled in the annals of public history. This isn’t quite accurate. Even if we’re to believe Haldeman, Ehrlichman, and Chapin about how the commander-in-chief didn’t know anything about Watergate before the fact, it still doesn’t seek to exonerate him because he obviously knew about other misappropriations of power and was involved in the cover-up after the truth was revealed. All Lane shows are first-hand accounts from three men who knew Nixon best. We can take their words however we want—her job is to provide a venue for us to decide.

The result is a captivating portrait of an administration that has become legendary in its failings. It shows Nixon’s winning smile and the private demeanors of those he kept close away from labels such as Haldeman being called “difficult with the press”. We watch as children gleefully run around the grounds on Easter, see one of Nixon’s daughters partake in the traditional father-daughter wedding dance, and catch Ehrlichman and Chapin laughing as they complete their work. But contrasting this unadulterated glee is also a carefully selected series of telephone conversations between Nixon and Haldeman that make the president out to be a praise-whore who piles on more self-congratulation than thanks towards the man providing him with his own. Even the happy moments are tainted by ego.

This is the stuff that intrigued me the most. Whether it’s true or not that Nixon could have been spared is as inconsequential as whether Haldeman, Ehrlichman, and Chapin truly believed in him as a mentor and leader. History has already been written and the resignation sealed that legacy’s fate. What matters instead is the document of truth. It’s watching interviewers of these top brass employees found guilty squirm and roll their eyes when told no wrongdoing occurred. One journalist goes so far as to continue bating, incredulously stating how Nixon was gone and jail terms were spent so why still lie? Maybe they aren’t. Maybe to them nothing wrong did occur or at least nothing out of the ordinary. Maybe they were simply unlucky to be caught.

Either way, Our Nixon provides unseen insight into a heavily studied and talked about incidents of American corruption. Would we ever watch these 500 reels if not for Lane culling together this film? I don’t know, but I sure wouldn’t have sought them out. On their own they’re at best silent glimpses of fuzzy and off-center events captured more professionally elsewhere and at worst footage of birds and squirrels in the White House gardens. Lane gives them context by chronologically aligning them alongside each year’s historical relevance. She lets them tell their story—one they can’t on their own to anyone who wasn’t present in the reels themselves. It’s therefore an ingenious way to supply criminal politicians some humanity while also explaining what it was they did wrong.

[1] President Nixon in the Oval Office preparing for his historic phone call to Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, who were at that very moment landing on the moon (July 20, 1969). Super 8 film still courtesy of Dipper Films.
[2] Special Assistant Dwight Chapin films Haldeman filming him at the White House on the night of the Apollo 11 moon landing (July 20, 1969). Super 8 film still courtesy of Dipper Films.
[3] President and Mrs. Nixon mingle with the locals in China while the American press looks on. Nixon dubbed this trip “the week that changed the world.” February 1972. Super 8 film still courtesy of Dipper Films.

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