When you think about Richard Nixon, you are either too young to remember his Presidency and the Watergate hearings (my parents sat literally glued to the television set, watching them, throughout) , or you are old enough to remember those days long ago, when Nixon raised his hands in an now-iconic, victory gesture, and music was the sound-track to protests about the War in Vietnam, (not just pop tarts exposing themselves and hugging their crotches on stage). These simpler (but not necessarily, quieter), times were remembered in a recent screening of Our Nixon, a film by Penny Lane that recently won the Best Documentary category at the 2013 Seattle International Film Festival.
Our Nixon, is about a very turbulent time in American history, the period between Richard Nixon’s election to the presidency in 1969, and ending with the conviction of Watergate co-conspirators H.R. Haldeman, John Ehrlichman and Dwight Chapin in 1974. The story of the Nixon Administration, from the War in Vietnam to the Opening of China to the Watergate cover-up is told almost exclusively through television news interviews, Nixon’s taped phone calls and meetings, and the home movies of Haldeman, Erlichman and Chapin.
It is the home movies that make the movie special, literally transfixing me with their amazingly human – almost quirky – insight into the workings of the Nixon Administration. According to the press literature, Haldeman, Ehrlichman and Chapin filmed over 500 reels of home movies from 1969 to 1973, capturing the prosaic and the profound. They filmed big events: the Apollo moon landing, historic anti-war protests, the Republican National Convention, Tricia Nixon’s White House wedding and Nixon’s world-changing trip to China. They filmed world leaders and celebrities: Nicolae Ceausescu, Chou En-lai, Barbara Walters. But they also filmed each other and everyday life: Ehrlichman eating dinner off a tray on Air Force One, Chapin’s wife and kids meeting the Easter Bunny on the White House lawn, Haldeman riding a bicycle at Camp David.
In an America where the Presidency has transcended politics into celebrity, and where Presidents are kept in a hermetically sealed vacuum of tele-prompted speeches given to fake crowds, Our Nixon shows a White House operation that is tangible, human and not unlike that of any office today. The tapes, interviews and particularly the home movies show an unedited Presidency, full of plotting, cursing and an amazing amount of pettiness. Listening to the President tell his Chief Of Staff about how he turned on the fake emotion in a speech about the Vietnam War, or how he was amazed to see a television show glorifying homosexuality (All in the Family) had the audience laughing while at the same time feeling kind of creepy and dirty.
But it was the Super-8 home movies (under wraps for decades following the Watergate hearings) that captivated us. These somewhat grainy movies show another side of these White House staffers and of the President. Surprisingly, these movies temper Nixon and his cronies’ foibles, showing him in causal times pool-side with friends and family, or beautiful clips of animals, birds and flowers outside of the Oval Office or at Camp David, while some of those famous taped phone conversations were heard over the film. It made you realize that these were real, if flawed, human beings going about their work, even as they did some stupid and very unethical things. Our Nixon was extremely even handed, even gracious in its portrayal of Haldeman, Ehrlichman and Chapin, if not of Nixon himself. His flaws, humanity and in the end, his paranoia are laid bare for all to see, but nicely.
The movie launches in theaters on August 30th. If you were too young to remember much about President Nixon, see it to learn what you missed. If you are old enough to remember, it’s a different perspective that will take you down memory lane, for better or for worse (and those fashions)!
For more about Our Nixon, Directed by Penny lane, visit OURNIXON.COM.
Thanks to John Dunham for his help in preparing this review