Former vice president under Dwight D. Eisenhower, Richard M. Nixon became the 37th President of the United States on his second attempt at the position, defeating Vice President Hubert Humphrey in 1968. He won re-election in 1972 against Senator George McGovern in an extremely lopsided victory, yet didn't complete his second term. He resigned in disgrace on August 9, 1974 before he could be impeached as a result of the dirty tricks conducted by his administration, most notably the break-in of Democratic Party headquarters at the Watergate Hotel and Office Building. Currently playing the festival circuit and set for a theatrical release on August 30, director Penny Lane's Our Nixon is a found-footage documentary that offers a compelling look at his presidency from the inside.
In an interview with Filmmaker, producer Brian L. Frye reveals he "learned about the National Archives and Records Administration’s Nixon Staff Super-8 Collection [over 500 reels shot from 1969 to 1973 by White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman, counsel and Assistant to the President for Domestic Affairs John Ehrlichman, and Special Assistant to the President and then Deputy Assistant Dwight Chapin, which was confiscated by the FBI during the Watergate investigation] from Bill Brand in the fall of 2000. At the time, Bill was preserving the films by creating a 16mm internegative…When I met Penny in 2008, we decided to invest in the project, hoping that it would result in a movie, and invested about $15,000 in making the initial video transfers, largely sight unseen."
The trio of amateur Super-8 filmmakers captured moments profound and mundane, public and private. Scenes of historical significance play out, including U.S. anti-war protests and Nixon's meeting with dignitaries, such as Pope Paul VI at the Vatican and Mao Zedong during his trip to China. Viewers briefly attend celebrations at the White House like daughter Tricia's wedding and the Easter Egg Roll on the lawn. There are even home-movie moments of the men: relaxing on vacation, sitting on Air Force One, and the occasional nature shot of flora and fauna.
What makes Our Nixon so unique and captivating is the intimacy created from the source materials. Aside from the Super-8 footage, Lane and her team make the brilliant decision to use the Nixon tapes, allowing viewers to hear the President and others reveal their mindset at the time as they deal with policy and politics. Nixon shows a bit of paranoia as well, some of which was justified. He's concerned with his "unfair" treatment in the media and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger's womanizing. They also don't like the liberal attitudes on a certain television show with a character named Archie. However, not everyone knew Nixon was recording. In an old interview, Ehrlichman says he didn’t, which is believable after hearing a phone conversation between the two. Nixon attempts to steer Ehrlichman into giving him an alibi, yet Ehrlichman reminds the President he knew what was going on.
Lane also uses archival news clips to tell this story. The most fascinating was an incident I was surprised I didn't know. After introducing the Ray Conniff Singers at a White House event, Nixon sat in the front row as member Carole Feraci protested the Vietnam War by showing a cloth that read, "Stop the Killing," and saying, "President Nixon, stop bombing human beings, animals and vegetation. You go to church on Sundays and pray to Jesus Christ. If Jesus Christ were here tonight, you would not dare to drop another bomb. Bless the Berrigans and bless Daniel Ellsberg." Other than Ray trying to grab the cloth, which she tucked away, there's surprisingly no reaction, from anyone. The group then awkwardly goes into their first song.
Our Nixon is a marvelous film for history buffs and political junkies. It tells an age-old story about the perils of hubris and the abuse of power, and is presented in an ingenious manner.