Editor’s Notes: Our Nixon opens in Toronto on Friday, August 30th
Whenever talk comes to presidents I notice something: the United States is pretty judgmental. The Republican/Democrat split aside (because if we know anything about the supremely broken two party system, it’s that the two sides can never be simultaneously happy), the country as a whole is never fully pleased with its sitting president. However, as the saying goes, time heals all wounds; or at least, most. Presidencies get boiled down to highlight reels and only the boldest portions stand out. It’s why Lincoln is revered as a forward thinking leader, FDR forever connected to his New Deal (thanks, Annie) and Clinton celebrated for an economic boom (regardless of an attempted impeachment). It becomes a waiting game to see how history will actually regard these presidents. Will their missteps define them, or will the highs outweigh the lows? Nixon is a popular subject, resigning in disgrace; he is rarely spoken of with anything other than derision. His story is popular and well known and that certainly isn’t helping Our Nixon.
During Nixon’s administration, three of his top aides, chief of staff H.R. “Bob” Haldeman, domestic affairs adviser John Ehrlichman and special assistant Dwight Chapin, were home movie mavens. Documenting their many trips and the experience of working at the highest office, the three collectively produced over 500 reels of Super 8 film. As the Watergate investigation took over the administration, the FBI seized these recordings and held onto them for nearly 40 years. Utilizing these now released tapes as well as numerous other archival sources, Our Nixon looks to paint a more fully developed image of the Nixon presidency.
The description is captivating. Videos previously hidden away by the FBI, now available that were taped by people working as close to the President as you could get without actually being from Nixon himself; of course I want to see that! But here’s the thing: they are home movies. These aren’t moving images captured by someone looking to find the real truth, an eye trained on exposure or enlightenment. Rather they are the videos of an excited few, those more concerned with getting proof of what they lived through, not capturing some inherent truth. It’s like the many home movies a father takes; he is so ecstatic to capture them, holding onto these moments that will now live forever, that he rarely fails to get anything of substance. The truth is that these films will not be celebrated, but stored. When was the last time you actually sat down to watch a home movie? For me, I must venture back to the land of VHS, and given the antique nature of the VCR, I think you can gather just how recently it was seen. Even for those that it captures, home movies just aren’t all that captivating. They meander, bore and, besides a modicum of nostalgia, are more-or-less pointless. If you then factor in a great distance from its subject, well, I just don’t really care.
If Our Nixon has anything going for it, it is its superb editing.
The film itself doesn’t bring anything of true substance to the Nixon discussion. Like any film about Nixon it is all one big build to Watergate, and Our Nixon certainly takes its time getting there. The hour that it spends wandering about, going on trips with the President and offering introductions to our videographers, doesn’t captivate or educate. When the drama of Watergate finally does hit, it is with little fanfare. The new footage doesn’t give us any insight into what was going on behind the scenes, and no new information is offered up. The film will not teach you anything new about Nixon or Watergate; this is all information that has been hammered into our heads before, and many times in a much more interesting manner.
What the footage tries to do is humanize its subjects. Haldeman, Ehrlichman and Chapin do not possess the prestige of Nixon and, to much of the world, are minor blips that have gone on to be forgotten. They are offered not only a face, but a bit of a personality. Their collected footage lends them an everyman quality and the later interviews offer a small doorway into the experience as they saw it. It’s still very slight. The most interesting sections come from the secret audio recordings, coming in the form of taped phone calls. At these points you begin to see the reciprocal level of devotion Nixon had with his staff. They remain forever by his side even as they are forced to resign and have only a prison sentence to look forward to. It illustrates the difficulty of a position in the White House, and how you are forever linked to the actions of your superior. Nonetheless, the film is only ever able to flirt with the idea of its subjects as actual people, often tripping right before offering true insight and ultimately failing to provide a reason for connection.
If Our Nixon has anything going for it, it is its superb editing. The sheer volume of material that editor Francisco Bello was required to comb through is staggering. He has strung together a coherent film and seems to recognize the inconsequential nature of its own home movies. The collected interviews and secretly recorded audio are the only segments that keep the film afloat and provide the film with some semblance of a voice.
The film itself doesn’t bring anything of true substance to the Nixon discussion.
Our Nixon is a victim of its own hubris. The appeal of never-before-seen footage is obvious and it seems that the film was rushed into existence on the novel quality of its clips alone. The film purports to provide a more fully realized image of Richard Nixon as not only President, but man. No new information is presented and the Nixon shown doesn’t argue with any established image. Our Nixon is a well-edited documentary with nothing groundbreaking or particularly interesting to say concerning its previously well-trodden subject. It plays like most home movies, familiar and far from satisfyingly enjoyable.
[notification type=”star”]54/100 ~ MEDIOCRE. Our Nixon is only ever able to flirt with the idea of its subjects as actual people, often tripping right before offering true insight and ultimately failing to provide a reason for connection.[/notification]