It’s 1969 and groovy is everywhere. Middle-class teenagers are the driving cultural force; no one has ever been this young before or since. Even at a Republican rally there are guys with Beach Boys haircuts and women in miniskirts and hoop earrings; a huge banner reads “Welcome, President Nixon” in a fun-font better suited for the Monkees. In the super-8 footage shot by his three top aides — confiscated at the time of Watergate and released after 40 years — Richard Nixon looks like a wolf amongst sheep, all lusty ambition. At his first inauguration there are balloons, but they’re strangely drab in color and they’re dropped from a rooftop instead of being released into the air. Nixon helped define the ’60s by embodying everything the ’60s were not.
In Our Nixon, Director Penny Lane contextualizes the aides’ super-8 footage by intercutting it with period television reports and later-in-life interviews, to shape an inside-outside story of the presidency cut short by the Watergate scandal. The aides themselves are quite young to be working in the highest levels of government, and were likely chosen to tap into the zeitgeist, but they look like an old man’s idea of what youth is. H.R. Haldeman is like a manned-up Wally Cleaver with his anachronistic flat-top; Dwight Chapin’s boyishness — he was only 27 at the time — is undercut by his adman smirk and pomaded ‘do. John Ehrlichmann was the oldest of the three at age 43.
The film draws most of its audio from the infamous taping system that secretly bugged rooms and tapped into phone lines in the White House. Nixon’s inner circle, who worked 14-hour days for him, 7 days a week, functioned as a kind of family, and it appears that Nixon’s most intimate relationship was with Haldeman — a soothing, reassuring presence, unwaveringly dutiful but also nurturing, even maternal.
Nixon himself, the “Our” version, comes across less a power-hungry master manipulator and more a preening, insecure diva. On the phone with Haldeman after a television address, the president congratulates himself: “The last part was quite a work of art, to be frank with you… you know, it was done with style,” he says. “It sure was!” enthuses Haldeman. But Nixon quickly starts to worry: “We haven’t heard from Connolly though, that’s curious… why don’t you call him and ask him what he thought of it?”
The film is unique in the geometry of its gaze. For most of Our Nixon, rather than the lens being directed from the filmmaker onto the subjects, it’s the subjects pointing the lens outward. We’re witnessing a cinematic rarity: the unmediated first-person POV — characters described by the way they see. Being John Malkovich in documentary form. When Chapin watches live TV coverage of the Presidential airplane as it’s about to depart for China — while he’s on the airplane — you get a kind of facing-mirrors effect.
Sometimes the camera has a naïve sense of wonder, like when it pans across an Italian bathroom with its mysterious bidet. Sometimes there’s a mournful subtext, like in the slow pans across the rooms in which the men worked — grabbing a memento of something that will soon be gone. Nixon himself is usually seen from a distance, like a neglectful daddy: in one shot, as he takes a meeting on the White House lawn, the camera zooms in but never gets very close. Super-8 has a connotation of tourism: if the Nixon White House was a family, the aides were in a sense tourists in their own family. There are also oddly long, zen-like shots of birds and squirrels outside the windows of the White House. Here Lane misses an opportunity: these shots would have been wonderful to experience in silence — in fact, they beg to be experienced as things-in-themselves rather than wallpaper for White House Tapes voice-over.
A lot of the footage conveys a sense of being surrounded by hostile forces. Anti-war protesters appear menacing and strangely caricaturized. In one amazing scene, Nixon proudly introduces the Ray Conniff singers: “If the music is square, it’s because I like it square!” The singers take the stage, unfurl a small banner, and tell the president to “stop bombing human beings.”
And yet the film suggests there was no strong ideology driving the administration: we see none of the shrill extremism we associate with the Republican Party today. Ehrlichman claims that he wasn’t a passionate Nixon man going in and might have been just as likely to work for Kennedy. We’re told that Nixon applauded warmly after watching a theatrical piece of Communist propaganda during his trip to China. When he clucks indignant about gays being shown favorably on All in the Family, and squawks that “Aristotle was a homo,” it’s a bit shocking, not to mention hilarious, but no doubt in line with sensibilities of the time.
Kissinger appears only sporadically, but his smiling, confident presence carries a specific weight. Nixon worries and schemes behind his back, trying to separate him from attractive women at formal dinners and getting all worked up about his taking credit for the China trip. Kissinger is considered to be the strategist and true Machiavellian genius within the Nixon White House, and if there’s one glaring omission in Our Nixon, it’s the failure to make any mention of the administration’s nefarious foreign policy efforts (aside from Vietnam) — in particular the efforts to overthrow Allende.
In that sense, Our Nixon continues the recent historical-whitewashing trend seen in films like The Iron Lady and J. Edgar. From a cinematic and storytelling perspective it’s of course quite interesting to show the world through the eyes of eyes of a film’s subject, but it’s disingenuous to pretend these films aren’t politically loaded. Particularly in the under-educated US, they shape people’s understanding of history. In Our Nixon, the administration is critiqued in terms of its methods, i.e. Watergate, but otherwise it comes across as a benign force, working to end the war in Vietnam, opening relations with China and such. The only outside opinion piece included is Dan Rather’s glowing appraisal of Nixon’s first year in office.
When Watergate eventually picks the aides off one by one, it feels like a family being ripped apart. These men have a genuine affection for each other; in fact, the emotional core of the film is the dominant-submissive bromance between Nixon and Haldeman. In a dramatic final conversation, after cutting him loose on national television, a drunk-sounding Nixon tells Haldeman he loves him and that “you’re gonna win this sonofabitch,” but in the same breath asks him if he’d make a round of calls to the cabinet members he hasn’t heard from, “like in the old style, would you mind?” There’s a quietly devastating finality to Haldeman’s answer: “I don’t think I can.”