Boyd van Hoeij checked in from Paris to report on Our Nixon and finds that its home movie footage of the Nixon administration looses steam as the Watergate scandal erupts.
500 reels of Super-8 footage were confiscated during the Watergate investigation. These White House home movies of sorts were shot by Nixon’s Chief of Staff, H.R. ‘Bob’ Haldeman, Advisor to the President John Ehrlichman, Special Assistant to the President Dwight Chapin and Deputy Assistant Larry Higby. The documentary Our Nixon combines excerpts from 208 reels of this until now unseen footage with contemporary audio and TV news clips as well as later interviews (some of those who handled camera duties have since died; Higby was the only one who didn’t serve a prison sentence in connection with Watergate).
Director Penny Lane and producer Brian L. Frye start their film with Nixon’s inauguration and there’s a clear optimism that emanates not only from the soundbites — "I never laughed as much as in the Nixon White House", one of the interviewers states — but also from the footage, which has a familiar behind-the-scenes feel that, it must be noted, would probably have struck a contemporary audience as quite novel.
Since the four cameramen (Higby gets the least attention here, so it more often feels like a trio) were part of Nixon’s inner circle, they get access to all the events at the White House, including high-profile performances by well-known artists; private family moments of the Nixons and state visits including a ground-breaking, for the time, visit to China. The Chinese state visit has snarky comments from the statesmen-turned-cameramen about how Nixon applauding at the end of what’s clearly been a Communist propaganda ballet would be badly received in any other context. There’s an interesting mise-en-abyme of themes here, brought about at least partially unwittingly, as the footage the men were shooting was clearly intended, somewhere down the line, to create an entirely positive (read: propaganda-like) portrait of Nixon himself as a statesman who, amongst many other achievements, opened negotiations with China.
Because Nixon has been the only President of the United States who has resigned (or was made to resign) to date, his name doesn’t have the ring of success and nostalgia to it that some of the names of other past presidents do. The Super-8 footage that Our Nixon shows, however, is an important reminder of the fact that no one sets out to be a bad president and that pure badness or even evil still emanates from human beings who might be flawed but were thinking they were doing the right thing at the time (no one consciously sets himself up for failure — but when discussing Nixon, or even Hitler for that matter, people tend to forget that). There’s a sense of joy and optimism in the early reels of Our Nixon that’s infectious, until, about halfway through, the directors arrive at Nixon’s second term (won in a landslide victory) and the Watergate Scandal becomes too big to contain.
The film here arrives in more well-known terrain and seems to rely less and less on the found footage that made the earlier part so interesting. Without a doubt, as the scandal blew up in their faces, the men involved didn’t feel like they had to document what was happening to them with their cameras. But this lack of direct footage means that the footage Our Nixon does show to accompany the various audio clips is more tangential, which, combined with the fact this is the most familiar narrative of the Nixon presidency, makes the second half much weaker — although it does contain a single effective contre-emploi. An audio recording of Nixon making a terrible mistake by suggesting he doesn’t know something which the person he’s talking to actually briefed him on is juxtaposed with Super-8, close-up shots of tulips in a garden, perhaps the White House garden.
Boyd van Hoeij