A new Richard Nixon documentary, “Our Nixon,” is comprised almost entirely — other than bits of archival footage and old interviews — of home movies of the late U.S. president by none other than his trusted aides and convicted Watergate conspirators, H.R. “Bob” Haldenman, John Ehrlichman and Dwight Chapin.
These films were confiscated by the FBI as part of their investigation into the Watergate burglary and subsequent coverup by the Nixon White House. They apparently sat forgotten on dusty shelves until now.
Documentary filmmaker Penny Lane — yes, that’s her real name — has set them free. She then went through over 500 seels and culled key clips to pull together her intimate look at Tricky Dick.
There are those among Nixon antagonists who can never get enough of Watergate lore so this film is definitely for them. Many others will no doubt get a kick out of candid home movies by men unapologetically devoted to a politician who famously declared “I am not a crook” yet proved otherwise.
But for many others there is little here that can frankly be called new. And for those unfamiliar with Watergate this is not the place to start.
Indeed many of the “revelations”contained in this film come from the infamous Nixon White House tapes themselves and not from the newly rediscovered Super-8 footage, which apparently were all shot without sound.
There is, for instance, a recorded sequence wherein an aide is explaining to Richard Nixon how his new taping system works. As Nixon finally understands how the man intends for the system to work, he says in an aside “Just don’t tell anyone you’ve got it.”
No, no one will ever find out about the taping system.
Then there’s a hilarious sequence where Nixon grouses about a TV sitcom he watched, “All in the Family,” although he doesn’t remember its name. He complains bitterly that it “celebrates homosexuality.”
He then goes on a tirade about how homosexuality led to the downfall of Athens and the Roman Empire. “The last emperors were all fags!” he declares with historical certainty. He finishes with a declaration that this is why communists are pushing a homosexual agenda on the United States — in hopes of pseudo-history repeating itself.
Yes, this is funny stuff along with the continual complaints about National Security Advisor and later Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, his egomaniacal behavior and blatant pursuit of much younger women.
But again, this comes from the audio tapes, a matter of public record for decades if anyone cares to have a listen. The home movies only buttress this oral commentary with fuzzy shots of Nixon, his aides and the occasional White House party.
(For all the constant picture taking, especially by Haldeman, none of these amateur photographers ever learned much about movie cameras or how to keep things in focus. To be fair, Lane contends that the conversion of the Super 8 film into 16mm color internegative film stock is to blame for the poor quality of much of the footage.)
Lane lets the footage mostly relate all too familiar events: the winding down of the Vietnam war, Nixon’s trip to China, the fury over the Pentagon Papers leak, his re-election and finally the Watergate scandal itself.
Using home movies may, as no doubt Lane intends, humanize a man who has otherwise been demonized in many circles.
But this doesn’t lead to any greater understanding of the paranoia that infected his White House or the mindset that led to a staunch belief in “dirty tricks,” the formation of the secret Plumbers unit to commit break-ins or the failed coverup of these misdeeds from which, logically, the president could have distanced himself.
Nevertheless, “Our Nixon” will justifiably attract attention and merits viewing. It adds to the Nixon canon and will assist future historians in their examination of those tumultuous years.
Venue: LA FIlm Festival
Opens: August 30,2013 (Cinedigm)
Production companies: CNN Films
Director: Penny Lane
Producers: Penny Lane, Brian L. Frye
Executive producers: Dan Cogan, Jenny Raskin, Louis Venezia, Rebecca Ritchie Brower
Music: Hrishlkesh Hirway
Editor: Francisco Bello
No rating, 84 minutes