‘Our Nixon’: Too soft

August 28, 2013

our nixon

A fascinating patchwork of news footage and home movies, “Our Nixon” is at once intriguing and compelling, an inside peek at people who seemed to make secrecy a watchword.

Indeed, Richard Nixon’s presidential administration was as secretive as they came – at least until the Reagan years (and then the Bush years and then…). What’s amazing is how benign this film makes Nixon’s presidency seem – indeed, how benign it seems seen from the distance of 40-plus years. That’s both a strength and a weakness of this film by Penny Lane.

The filmmakers discovered that there was a treasure trove of home movies, shot by three of Nixon’s key underlings: Dwight Chapin, John Ehrlichman and H.R. Haldeman. Seized by the FBI during the Watergate investigation, they’d been sitting in the National Archive, available to the public but untouched. At one point, they had been considered evidence in the various criminal proceedings that Nixon’s CREEP creeps spun off. Talk about brand extension.

Chapin and the late Haldeman and Ehrlichman were inveterate home-movie shooters. They carried their Super-8 cameras with them everywhere, filming behind the scenes during the 1968 campaign and during Nixon’s Oval Office days, including his historic trips to Russia and China.

Lane finds archival footage of Haldeman and Ehrlichman talking about their behind-the-scenes roles in the White House (though neither was particularly happy as a public figure in those days). Chapin is still alive and seemingly both unrepentant and nostalgic for his old pals, offering his reminiscences about the period.

History tells us that Nixon resigned in disgrace, having helped orchestrate the cover-up of the Watergate burglary, though he supposedly wasn’t involved with its planning. The director interweaves news footage of the Watergate story as it unfolded, turning to the home movies to show that, for a long while, normal White House life was uninterrupted by the burgeoning scandal – until it couldn’t be ignored.

But, blending the home movies with the tape recordings of Oval Office conversations that ultimately sank Nixon, they show the bigger picture: a group of men resolute in their determination to cling to power as long as possible.

Chapin remains a staunch Nixon supporter, someone who still believes he got a raw deal that was as much a media creation as anything else. Even as the film shows protesters standing up to Nixon’s Vietnam War policies, the home movies paint a picture of a seemingly jovial, put-upon president.

I’m not suggesting that “Our Nixon” should have been snarkier or more pointed – it tells the story and provides insight into what was going on behind the scenes. It’s a kind of cognitive dissonance: the sweaty, desperate Nixon being painted as this avuncular, brainy, misunderstood world leader.

Is that a disservice to contemporary viewers who weren’t alive when Watergate happened? No one who remembers those days lacks an opinion about the events that led to Nixon’s downfall, positive or negative.

I make no bones about my longstanding and visceral dislike of Nixon. While he was in office, I thought I’d never see a worse president in my lifetime. Then Ronald Reagan came along. And then George W. Bush. It seems we might never hit bottom when it comes to Republicans.

That “Our Nixon” can be so fascinating at the same time that it’s so seemingly neutral is an unusual balancing act for a movie about a president for whom few see neutral ground.

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