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Few political figures have given liberals of a certain age more pleasure than Richard Nixon. To watch such an unrepentant and obvious liar fall so far, and so spectacularly, was something to behold in 1974. For anyone politically cognizant at the time, his resignation represented the glowing, Venn-diagram center of disillusionment and hope: Your country's leader could use the scummiest tactics to preserve his little fiefdom (terrible), but he could also be brought down (amazing). Now, of course, we live mostly in the disillusionment segment of the diagram: We monitor even the leaders we essentially like, just to make sure they're worthy of our trust. But the fall of Nixon will always shimmer like a golden flame in our memories. As a friend of mine often says, he's the gift that keeps on giving.
On that score, Penny Lane's debut feature documentary, Our Nixon, should be pure pleasure. Beginning in 1969, three White House newbies—Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman, Chief Domestic Adviser John Ehrlichman, and the youngest of the bunch, Deputy Assistant Dwight Chapin—took up their Super 8 home movie cameras to chronicle their exciting new lives in the political spotlight. That footage was seized by the FBI as part of the Watergate investigation and then stored away, forgotten for nearly 40 years. Our Nixon collects some of the choicest bits, integrating images of long-ago White House Easter egg hunts and lunar landing footage with little-heard excerpts from the White House tapes that ultimately brought down Nixon and his cronies. Interspersed are clips of after-the-fact interviews with Haldeman, Ehrlichman, and Chapin, all pussyfooting around their guilt and culpability.
The result is more entertaining curio than revelatory document. Our Nixon doesn't really tell us much more about Nixon or these three henchmen than we already knew. Some of the footage here is mundane, blandly cheerful family-related stuff: Chapin's kids cavorting with a sinister-looking Easter Bunny on the White House lawn, for example. Some of it is mildly historically relevant: There are a few shots of Haldeman wearing a furry hat and stubby suede gloves, standing in front of China's Great Wall in 1972, turning his own camera on whatever camera is turned on him. There's footage of Nixon at daughter Tricia's wedding, wearing a proud-papa tux and looking as dapper as a guy like that possibly could. In between, there are images of the nefarious commander-in-chief descending from various planes and entering various rooms.
The images have the grainy, vaguely faded look you'd expect. Sometimes they seem snoozily familiar; other times, they resemble strange missives beamed from another planet, a long-ago, faraway place where some residents hover above all other workaday beings, puffed up with their own status—their invincibility is a given. This isn't intended to be a complete history of Watergate: For that, there's nothing like Mick Gold's magnificent 1994 BBC documentary miniseries Watergate (not available on DVD, though you can watch it on YouTube). Our Nixon is intended as a more intimate portrait of these key figures in the scandal, and Lane does give us a sense of them as human beings, particularly in her clever culling of later TV interview footage: We see an older Dwight Chapin circa 2007—his baby-face handsomeness having given way to sad, saggy jowls—speaking with dewy-eyed fondness about how thrilled and excited he was to be part of the Nixon White House, and how he, Haldeman, and Ehrlichman used to goof around. He makes the trio seem as cute and harmless as puppies.
For a second or two. Mostly he just evades blame, as we see Haldeman and Ehrlichman doing in similar TV interviews conducted before they died (Haldeman in 1993, Ehrlichman in 1999). What's more intriguing is the way Our Nixon chronicles the president's growing paranoia, though that's mostly evident in voice clips from the tapes, not from the Super 8 footage. We hear him grousing to Haldeman and Ehrlichman about some show he watched on TV, where a nice, average, working guy is made to look ridiculous by his hippie son-in-law. (He was talking about All in the Family.) He complains about then-National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger's being interviewed by some girl journalist he probably met in a bar, without showing any evidence that he knew who the girl in question was. (It was Oriana Fallaci.)
In the end, though, Our Nixon is an elusive piece of work. It doesn't add much to our understanding of the man himself, though admittedly, there may not be much more that we want or need to know, anyway. The one truly startling bit of footage shows the president, in 1972, introducing the Ray Conniff Singers at a White House event, almost apologizing in advance for how straitlaced they are: "If the music is square, it's because I like it square." But one member of this squeaky-clean outfit turns the tables on him by holding up a banner handwritten with the words "Stop the killing" and offering a brief, impromptu lecture on the immorality of the bombing of Cambodia. We don't get to see Nixon's reaction, but we can guess what it was. It's a bold moment, and an invigorating one. If nothing else, Our Nixon may open up the joys of hating Nixon to new generations.
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