Though he died almost 20 years ago, Richard Nixon still casts a long, ominous shadow. Last week, the final instalment of 3,000 hours of the secret White House tapes was released, with Nixon making more racist comments and showing defiance in the face of the Watergate scandal that led to his 1974 resignation. Currently in theatres, John Cusack, with a prosthetic Pinocchio nose, plays the late president in Lee Daniel’s The Butler. And now there’s the new documentary, Our Nixon, which explores the 37th American presidency through the medium of home movies.
These intimate, shaky Super-8 films were shot by Nixon’s key aides – H.R. Haldeman, John Ehrlichman and Dwight Chapin, all future Watergate convicted felons. Our Nixon is an entirely archival documentary, with the film rolls culled from a trove of about 26 hours, which had been stored by the Federal Bureau of Investigation for decades. The home films make up about 60 per cent of the content of Our Nixon, with the rest provided by television clips and the infamous White House secret tapes. The design is to create an ironic collage more than a conventional documentary chronicle of events. As Lane said in interviews in April, when the film appeared at the Hot Docs festival, the title echoes both Hans-Jürgen Syberberg’s 1977 experimental biography, Our Hitler and the vintage children’s film series, Our Gang (aka The Little Rascals).
Our Nixon begins with a post-Watergate 1975 television clip, in which a theatrically incredulous Phil Donahue interviews H.R. (Bob) Haldeman – the crew-cut conservative proudly known as “Nixon’s S.O.B.” – who continues to insist the Watergate debacle was blown out of proportion. The two other perpetrator/auteurs are introduced through interview footage: There’s the irrepressible milquetoast 27-year-old protégé, Dwight Chapin (“Our senses of humour and our personalities made it all nice”) and John Ehrlichman, a lawyer from Seattle whose cynicism is more appealing than the other men’s denials.
But, back in the late sixties, they were just a gang of bright young guys enjoying life in the ultimate tree fort, the White House. They loved to document their new lives, shooting everything from press conferences to Tricia Nixon’s wedding to squirrels foraging on the White House lawn, or even each other, standing by the Great Wall of China.
The word “surreal” pops up a lot in the interviews with the three men. The jittery handheld shots of French president Charles De Gaulle, the novelty of bidets in Paris washrooms, or Pope Paul VI shot sideways by accident, emphasize the giddiness of their new experiences. The utopianism of the era, apparently, was not exclusive to the political left. The boppy 1972 campaign tune Nixon Now, sounds like the kind of communal love-in performed by the Association or the New Seekers.
Arguably, Lane’s flippant approach fails to take seriously Nixon’s crimes: It’s an exploration of the banality of evil that constantly puts banality first, but this is a relatively narrow experimental film designed to supplement rather than replace more thorough histories. At its best moments, Our Nixon captures the split-personality of the times, and the apparently innocent face of corruption. A highlight is a 1972 dinner celebrating 50 Years of Readers Digest, where we see Nixon introduce the Ray Conniff Singers.
“If the music is square, it’s because I like it square,” he growls.
Just before the first number begins, one of the Conniff singers, a young, long-haired brunette (Canadian singer Carole Feraci), steps forward and holds up an anti-war banner and asks the president to “please stop the bombing of human beings, animals and vegetation” before launching into the corny 1920s hit, Ma, He’s Making Eyes at Me.
For comic fodder, Nixon’s prudish paranoia never gets old. After coming across an episode of All in the Family, he calls Ehrlichman to fulminate about this shameless promotion of homosexuality.
“You know what happened to the Greeks. Homosexuality destroyed them. Aristotle was a homo, we all know that. So was Socrates.”
Adds Ehrlichman helpfully: “But he never had the influence that television has.”
The arc of the film shows early euphoria progressing toward an increasingly grim siege mentality as the anti-Vietnam protests, the revelations of the Pentagon Papers, and, finally, the Watergate scandal threaten their enclave. CBS anchor, Walter Cronkite, in archival clips provides most of our précis of the 1972 break-in at the Democratic party’s headquarters and the Nixon administration’s attempted cover-up of its involvement.
By the time of the Watergate break-in, the men seem to have stopped shooting movies. The amount of Super-8 footage drops off sharply, with the White House tapes filling in the emotional trajectory between the damning news reports. The dismantling of the White House boys’ club is presented as rapid, culminating in a maudlin, drunken phone call from Nixon, who calls Haldeman after firing him on national television (or, more precisely, announcing his resignation).
“I love you like a brother,” slurs Nixon. Then, once more for old times’ sake, asks Haldeman if he could make the usual phone calls and check how the TV speech played out among his friends and enemies.