It turns out that if Richard Nixon’s key aides were a few decades younger, they probably would have been really into Instagram. Penny Lane’s new documentary Our Nixon, released Aug. 30, uses mostly amateur Super-8 camera footage, shot by the former U.S. president’s White House chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman; John Ehrlichman, his domestic affairs assistant; and Dwight Chapin, his deputy assistant, who all ultimately ended up serving jail time for their involvement in the 1970s Watergate scandal. Henry Kissinger appears in the film fairly often too, though he was apparently too busy addressing international relations and his relationships with women to fool around with a camera.
Without any voice-over narration, the film takes a genuine stab at working in the style of cinéma vérité— candid scenes unguided by a director. However, the shaky footage shot by Nixon’s aides reveals nothing particularly shocking. It mostly presents a warm-and-fuzzy, sometimes goofy picture of the mundane, as home videos often do best. We see Nixon at his desk and on vacation, White House dinner parties and entertainment, and a lot of the White House gardens — too often, unfortunately, to hold our interest. We also see Nixon’s advisors filming each other, and the sheer volume of such footage that Lane incorporates into her documentary seems to imply a criticism of an indulgently inward-looking old-boys-club not fully in touch with reality.
Lane’s arrangement of clips reveals a particular interest in the awkward theatrics of Nixon’s life. One of the film’s most perfectly cringe-worthy moments occurs when Nixon introduces The Ray Conniff Singers, who are playing at the White House, with “If the music’s square, it’s because I like it square.” Soon afterwards, however, one singer uses the microphone to harshly criticize Nixon for the war in Vietnam. In China, Nixon and his aides attend a play with Communist propaganda. According to Haldeman, though the play “would have been horrifying at home […] it all seemed to fit together here.” With these scenes, personal drama overshadows actual politics in the film, and the result— despite echoing Nixon’s nebulous legacy— is a film that leaves us with more questions than answers.
Pairing this home-video footage with other archival footage occasionally results in clever, ironic juxtaposition. This includes Nixon’s television addresses as well as interviews with his aides. It also features some deliciously horrifying clips from the White House tapes, which is where the shock value of the Nixon story continues to lie. Behind Nixon’s on-screen façade of confidence is a man who is paranoid, insecure and out-of-touch with reality. For instance, while viewing the perfectly manicured White House gardens, we hear Nixon rant: “You know what happened to the Greeks? Homosexuality destroyed them […]you see, homosexuality, immorality in general, these are the enemies of strong societies. That’s why the Communists and the left-wingers are pushing it; they’re trying to destroy us!” But the film is neither didactic nor strictly one-sided. In fact, it does present glimpses of Nixon’s charming side, such as showcasing his deep loyalty to his criminal colleagues.
Overall, however, the film suffers from a lack of thematic unity and structure. It is not always clear why a particular piece of footage has been included— why, for instance, are we looking at a prolonged shot of a squirrel in the White House gardens? The drifting, rambling quality of the film makes you feel as though you are traveling back in time in a dream state. When you wake up, a general confusion tempts one to consult a real biopic for clarification.
Our Nixon begins screening at Cinema du Parc (3575. av. du Parc)on Sept. 6.