Penny Lane’s debut documentary, the all-archival Our Nixon, offers a compelling new inside look at the Nixon White House. The classic cautionary tale about power, corruption, and paranoia, which ultimately brought down the thirty-seventh president of the United States, has been told many times before, on film (All the President’s Men, Oliver Stone’s Nixon), in books (Woodward and Bernstein’s The Final Days, RN: The Memoirs of Richard Nixon), onstage (Frost/Nixon, Checkers), and even as an opera (John Adams’s Nixon in China). When Nixon moved into the White House in January 1969, he brought along three key figures: Chief of Staff H. R. Haldeman, Chief Domestic Adviser John Erlichman, and Deputy Assistant Dwight Chapin. And those three men brought along Super 8 cameras, prepared to document not only their daily lives but also how they were going to change the nation. During its investigation of the Watergate scandal, the FBI confiscated more than five hundred reels of footage, totaling more than twenty-six hours, taken by Haldeman, Erlichman, and Chapin, and these home movies, which belong to the Nixon Library and have been digitized specifically for the film, form the basis of Our Nixon. Director-producer Lane combines this deeply personal footage — showing alternate views of the 1969 inauguration, a White House Easter egg hunt, the moon landing, Trisha Nixon’s wedding, Nixon’s trip to China, the Republican National Convention, and other, more mundane events — with carefully chosen audio excerpts from the White House tapes, creating a unique audiovisual experience.
Lane foregoes any political and historical experts in favor of having the protagonists do all the talking, through radio and television interviews (with Mike Wallace, Barbara Walters, and Phil Donahue), oral histories, and the secret White House recordings. In addition, there are supplemental news reports from Walter Cronkite, Dan Rather, Daniel Schorr, and others. As interesting as it is to see the home movies, the audiotapes are mesmerizing, revealing some of the behind-the-scenes manipulations that were often not nearly as planned as most people assume. It is actually both frightening and sad to hear Nixon talking to Haldeman about a just-completed short television address he gave to the nation, the president concerned about how he came off and upset that only one colleague called to congratulate him. And just wait till you hear what they have to say about Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Although Our Nixon offers no excuses or apologies for the actions of the Nixon White House, it does humanize, instead of demonize, these central figures, who might not have been quite as overtly evil as many people would like to believe. Of course, that doesn’t mean they come across as a group of cuddly teddy bears either. Our Nixon opens August 30 at the IFC Center, with the filmmakers participating in several Q&As on Friday and Saturday night.