With political and celebrity missteps so regularly revealed today through cellphones and social media, it’s refreshing to look back at the Nixon administration and remember that humans never needed those tools to record themselves into eternal condemnation. Penny Lane’s documentary Our Nixon purports to add a new layer to this truth by revealing the reels of Super 8 film recorded by members of Richard Nixon’s staff during his presidency. These were previously in storage following the Watergate investigations, and in theory, when combined with the well-known White House tapes on which Nixon recorded every conversation he had in the Oval Office, it’s yet more evidence of the unique mix of ego, pride, and irresponsibility that prevailed in the Nixon administration.
But the footage, made up as it is of mostly mundane and harmless images, is by far the least interesting part of the doc. What makes it noteworthy isn’t what was captured, but who was doing the capturing: H.R. Haldeman, John Ehrlichman, and Dwight Chapin—high-level staff members, all of whom resigned from the administration and served prison sentences for their roles in Watergate. Our Nixon never completely overcomes the disappointment of its recovered video, but it nevertheless offers a compelling portrait of Nixon and those close to him, one that captures how wilfully blind they often were to their excesses, and how paranoid they were about apparent threats to them and America as a whole.
Apart from archival news footage littered through the film, Our Nixon is pieced together entirely from Haldeman, Ehrlichman, and Chapin’s videos, which have no sound and so get filled out mostly with audio clips from interviews, oral histories, and the White House tapes. The opening credits, set to Tracey Ullman’s chirpy “They Don’t Know,” are promising: The main subjects mug for the camera and the full effect could pass plausibly for the opening of a cheesy ’70s sitcom. Once that ends, though, we realize what the three men mostly spent their time filming: Nixon in the White House, Nixon greeting crowds, the view from Air Force One, and other footage ready-made for unremarkable family home videos.
The videos fail in their promise of revealing intimate moments, but the doc highlights how close Nixon, Haldeman, Ehrlichman, and Chapin were in other ways. In audio interviews played throughout the film, the men repeatedly describe the friendliness between the staff. Our Nixon makes a point to indicate that the president’s staff was one of the youngest in history, and often it sounds like the atmosphere in the White House hadn’t grown too far from a high-jinks-loving boys club. Yet there was doubtless true affection in the ranks, and toward the end of the doc, in the wake of Haldeman and Erlichman’s resignation, we hear Nixon tell the two men how much he loves them, a moment that’s touching even if we’re later reminded of how Nixon never testified on their behalf when they were on trial.
Their forthright bromance is just a little ironic as well in the context of Nixon’s tirade against All in the Family and its ostensibly pernicious gay propaganda. The rant is hysterical (Nixon the historian goes off momentarily on how homosexuality brought down the Greek and the Roman empires), but also hints at a mix of paranoia and self-righteousness that gets echoed further when the film shows Nixon’s speech on the silent majority. Subtly but forcefully, Our Nixon interconnects footage to showcase how the Nixon administration was marked by the notion that, whether on TV or in the streets, radical vocal elements were bringing down a worthier, if privately held and increasingly anachronistic, vision of America. The film has many such moments of intelligent connect-the-dots editing and discrete editorializing. Few of the interviews or snippets of tape are particularly damning in themselves, but the doc is carefully put together to emphasize the most hypocritical, laughable, or sometimes deceitful aspects of the administration.
Still, given that the new video footage is underwhelming, the White House tapes aren’t novel, and the doc is far from a comprehensive account of the Nixon administration and the lead up to Watergate, it might be fair to wonder what Our Nixon adds to our collective understanding of that era. The answer might come in just how funny the documentary is, largely due to how it culls mostly the comical and absurd from the White House tapes and other interviews. If you calibrate your expectations away from objectivity and exhaustive coverage, Our Nixon offers something else of special value: a chance to laugh at the often foolish men who tried to pull off Watergate, as if their own missteps through overexposure had happened only yesterday on Twitter.