To Preserve, Protect and Defend
Unimaginative, eponymous film titles, i.e., merely a character’s name, are lazy and to be suspected. Our Nixon, on the other hand, separates itself in the suggestive possessive adjective, in its variation from the tired current non-fiction format, and in a refusal to cram a point of view or crucify an easy target.
Delightfully named Penny Lane’s début documentary feature and earlier a Lincoln Center/MoMA New Directors/New Films Closing Night selection, this eighty-four minutes is almost entirely archival material, including some TV-programs minutes and a couple interviews with central figures a few to thirty years after the events.
Available as public domain but sitting ignored in the National Archives were twenty-six hours on five hundred rolls of film, essentially home movies taken at the very highest of power levels. Confiscated from John Ehrlichman’s office by the FBI for the Watergate investigation, the deteriorating Super 8 had more recently been poorly copied onto 16mm color negatives, but the filmmaker and producers secured the originals from the Richard Nixon Library and Birthplace and got them scanned and digitalized.
The bulk of this material had been the amateur more or less hobby work of three presidential staff members, Chief Domestic Adviser Ehrlichman, Chief of Staff H.R. “Bob” Haldeman, and Deputy Appointments Assistant Dwight Chapin. Young self-proclaimed “squares” against the ‘60s-‘70s youth grain, patriotic and (despite doubts on the former’s part) unreservedly committed to the candidate and then thirty-seventh president, they recorded the essential, the mundane, and the personal. Their hand-helds caught historic trips to China and the Soviet Union and visits from foreign heads of state, the first Moon landing, the increasingly militant anti-war movement, the Daniel Ellsberg Pentagon Papers fallout; and they got the campy, such as photo ops, scrubbed singing groups, campaign-trail silliness, Henry Kissinger’s dinner dates; and the cuddly as well, good-natured humanizing events like Tricia Nixon’s wedding or the White House Easter bunny among mothers and kids.
To her credit, Lane is evenhanded (plus steers completely clear of Agnew), does not descend to facile tone-setting popular music of the era, and uses very few printed titles to give information that in film should be shown not told. What is in print, lots of it, are middle-of-screen “subtitles,” that is, transcripts (over furniture, flowers and hummingbirds) of the voiced, mostly intelligible White House Audiotapes, even to the president’s novice questions about bugging as that very sound-activated system is being installed.
John Fowles reasonably mentioned Watergate as more a cultural than a political tragedy, and indeed, the break-in proving needless in light of this nation’s most lopsided election, that whole mess is given new, unusual context in Our Nixon, the commander in chief revealed as “ours” in resulting from a peculiarly American frame of mind. Many were more bothered by the president’s occasional profanity and (today) politically incorrect epithets, but, left to speak for himself Nixon denies, semi-denies or hedges about prior knowledge of the business at Democratic national headquarters and later the California office of the proto-WikiLeaker’s psychiatrist.
The three filmers, these three staffers closest to Nixon, react differently to their being in effect scapegoated let go to limit damage that was already irreparable, anyway. They are later interviewed, behind them their varying amounts of prison time served, and, whatever the feelings about justice and who was “right” or “wrong” or in-between, they were first-hand witnesses to, in fact participants in, the arrogance of power, the naïveté, the deception and the paranoia that characterized that whole sorry affair (and unrelated others).
(Released by Cinedigm; not rated by MPAA.)