There have been so many documentaries about President Richard M. Nixon and the Watergate break-in that triggered his political demise, and I'm sure we’re still far from seeing our last. I’m also sure that we’ll never see another that's as surprisingly and artistically keen as director Penny Lane’s eerie, beautiful “Our Nixon,” which airs Thursday night on CNN.
“Our Nixon,” which got good buzz on this year’s film-festival circuit (including Washington’s AFI Docs fest this summer), is delicately built from 500 or so reels of Super-8 home-movie footage shot, for fun and posterity, by three of Nixon’s top aides, whose names should still ring bells: H.R. Haldeman, John Ehrlichman and Dwight Chapin.
Before things fell apart (and all three did prison time for their roles in the Watergate cover-up), these men were enamored with the high-tech wonders of the hand-held camera, just like many of our fathers were in the late 1960s and early ’70s, and just like all of us are now with iPhones and Vine accounts.
Brimming with good-natured Republican optimism in the face of so much civil and social unrest, Haldeman and the guys took to documenting their daily activities at the White House or while tagging along on Nixon’s diplomatic trips, including his history-making visit to China. If it looks like family movies, it’s because they really seemed to have formed a family; and like most families, all the smiling and waving cannot entirely mask the darkness just beneath the surface.
As the Watergate hearings dug deeper, the fixation turned to modern evidence found in audiotapes and follow-the-money paperwork. That’s how the FBI came into possession of the Nixon aides’ movies; the footage sat untouched for nearly four decades.
Another sort of documentarian, looking for fresh news, might paw through all this footage and find it quite disappointing, filled as it is with visiting dignitaries, first-family weddings, garden walks and the coming and going of the Marine One helicopter. What you see is an administration that lived, as they all do, in a bubble of orchestrated good cheer; in footage of the ’72 reelection campaign, Nixon is surrounded by patriotic Boy Scouts, perky Up With People-type chorales and fawning senior citizens. It’s definitely of interest, but is it actually interesting?
Lane and her co-producer, Brian L. Frye, saw a chance in all this to make something called an “essay film,” as much about what the ’70s felt like as it is about historical events. The essay film is a little-known documentary genre that lives way across the spectrum from conventional techniques of narration, inquiry, interviews and the Ken Burns pan-and-zoom effect. As such, “Our Nixon” is mainly a collage of images and sounds that tell a familiar story in an entirely new and mesmerizing way.
There’s less at stake here; no point to prove, no guilt trip left to inflict. You can feel the Watergate era slipping off into ancient (but memorable) history, but you can also, for a moment, sense it as a living and breathing drama. My only criticism is that CNN is airing it with commercial breaks; if ever there was a time for your DVR ad-skipping skills, this is it.
Being an impressionistic film, “Our Nixon” is under no obligation to go chasing after the usual (and still alive) sources to say the usual things, save for some contemporary thoughts from Chapin. (Haldeman died in 1993; Ehrlichman died in 1999.) “Our Nixon” has the remarkable effect of letting those of us in the 21st century — who either don’t remember Watergate first-hand, or were born after it — to get a less-filtered look at bygone days.
The home-movie footage is supplemented and contextualized with grainy video newscasts from the Watergate days as well as the gift that never stops giving — those endless (and endlessly horrifying) hours of Oval Office recordings that picked up Nixon’s every meeting and phone call. (In one such call with his aides, he goes off on “All in the Family” and the scourge of homosexuality.)
Lane is also concerned with an archival sense of aftermath, weaving in interviews that Haldeman and Ehrlichman did later on with “60 Minutes” and “Donahue.” She even finds a way to toss in Ehrlichman’s ill-fated attempt at humor as an ice-cream pitchman in a 1987 TV ad.
As described, “Our Nixon” may sound like it verges on a fond tribute, but it certainly isn’t that. Through this combination of scratchy film images, lousy campaign-related pop songs and the tinny, paranoid clicks and whirrs of phone recordings, the overall mood is one of dourness and discordance, of Nixon living in a world where he was never safe from undermining ridicule. During a White House concert, captured on film, the president introduces one of his favorite pop acts, the upbeat Ray Conniff Singers.
“If the music is square, it’s because I like it square,” Nixon says, delighting the crowd.
The singers take the stage, whereupon one of the female performers lambastes the president (“Bless the Berrigans and bless Daniel Ellsberg!”) and unfurls a “Stop the Killings” banner, right before the music starts. “Our Nixon” is a love song to a man who knew victories but just couldn’t win.
(two hours) airs Thursday at 9 p.m.
on CNN, with encores.