Our Nixon, a new documentary directed by Penny Lane, wasn't what I thought it was going to be, and for that I am grateful. I expected the usual history lesson via narration and images, but this film is much more intimate, odd and meditative than the norm.
The film consists primarily of Super 8 footage taken by Nixon's closest aides, the ones who would later go down with him in the Watergate scandal: Dwight Chapin, John Ehrlichman and H.R. Haldeman. They assembled something like 30 hours of spooky, silent footage of early '70s Americana that was later seized by the FBI as evidence and has only just now been made available to the public some 40 years later. The home videos are supplemented with eerie audio playbacks of the infamous "White House Tapes" and old TV interviews and news clips. Look out for a young Barbara Walters, Walter Cronkite, Phil Donahue and others.
Our Nixon has a narrative thread, but the images are disjointed. You'll hear the staff talking nervously about their political fates while watching a hummingbird suck nectar or people blandly crossing the street. Super 8 is a great medium, full of rich color and texture. Take heart. If Nixon were president now, in 40 years we'd be watching this film as shot on somebody's iPhone. As it stands, this is the kind of movie you could play in the background at a party with your own soundtrack. Before the trouble starts, we're treated with a series of moving images. We see the administration's trip that opened up relations with China, and it could have been anybody out there goofing off with a camera on the big wall. They try to film the Pope's procession, but in their zeal to get the shot, the camera is sideways. My favorite is their take on the moon launch, filmed from a spot way back in the crowd behind the back of somebody's head.
Sure, Nixon and his people were drunk with power. They perpetrated the Watergate scandal, kept us in a terrible war and said racist, homophobic things when they thought no one would ever find out, but what this film does more than anything is humanize the players, despite all of our preconceived notions of what they must have been like. We learn that these men were friends. They joked around with each other. They were gossipy and paranoid. In one phone call, after delivering a speech to the American people about the importance of staying the course in Vietnam, Nixon calls Ehrlichman, and the conversation is nothing but verbal pats on the back. Nixon asserts that the speech was good, that it was full of feeling and would resonate with the public, and Ehrlichman, the forever yes man, enthusiastically agrees. At the end of this and many other phone conversations, Nixon tells his man to call around, see what everybody else thinks, and then call him back. Always he wants his friends to call him back, and in this he displays an earnest need to be liked that's as touching and pathetic as a preteen on her first day of school. Liberal critics accuse the movie of being soft because their Nixon is evil through and through, and this film toys with that picture. I wouldn't go so far as to call Nixon or his cohorts ordinary men (anybody who wants to be and then becomes president could never be ordinary) but, for God's sake, they weren't monsters. At one moment, Nixon goes on a strange diatribe, linking the TV show "All in the Family" with the fall of the Roman Empire on account of homosexuality. It's bad, but nothing you might not overhear one old man say to another at a gas station in Montana. Later, on the night Haldeman was made to publicly resign, Nixon drunkenly tells Haldeman he loves him, over and over again.
This is more Dark Side of the Moon than All the President's Men. Remember that when you step into the theater, and pre-game accordingly.
Our Nixon plays at the Roxy Theater Fri., Sept. 6, through Mon., Sept. 9, at 7 and 9 PM. $7/$6 students and seniors.