The rise and fall of Richard Nixon has been so thoroughly, comprehensively examined—in books, magazine articles, television programs, documentaries—that yet another look at those scandal-ridden years seems a bit like overkill. The novelty of Our Nixon, a kind of home-movie vision of these same fateful events, is that it isn’t just about the president, but also the bright young men who became his co-conspirators—and, ultimately, his sacrificial lambs. Loyal confidants who ended up serving prison terms for their involvement in Watergate, H.R. “Bob” Haldeman, John Daniel Ehrlichman, and Dwight Chapin were also avid Super 8 enthusiasts. Constantly chronicling their experiences at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the three staffers shot more than 500 reels of film, most of which were seized by the FBI and sat in storage for four decades. This intimate time-capsule documentary combines some of their footage with vintage news clips and later interviews with all three men. The results are akin to seeing the Nixon presidency through the eyes of his top aides; it’s as much a portrait of innocence lost as a behind-closed-doors exposé.
Those hoping for some truly revealing moment captured on film—like, say, the plotting of a hotel break in—will be disappointed, though there are a few treasures for history’s blooper real. For example, in one painfully funny clip, Nixon introduces pop group The Ray Conniff Singers by noting, “If the music’s square, it’s because I like it square,” only to be promptly, un-squarely chastised by one of the musicians for his involvement in Vietnam. The icing on the cake is that whoever’s behind the camera—probably Haldeman—just keeps filming, zooming in close on the subsequent cheerful performance while the president presumably stews in the front row.
For the most part, though, the footage featured here is of a resolutely mundane nature; there are glad-handing political events, staff dinners, and more than a few lingering, affectionate shots of the pristine White House lawn. While the streets teemed with protestors and the country erupted into chaos, these three men navel-gazed through a camera lens. That makes Our Nixon a sort of kindred spirit to the great Romanian essay-doc The Autobiography Of Nicolae Ceausescu, which was also assembled from official (and mostly uneventful) home movies of its disgraced leader. Ceausescu even makes a cameo appearance, in what could be images of the very same meeting—maybe even the exact same moment in time—depicted in Autobiography.
Perhaps inevitably, Our Nixon also trots out those infamous Oval Office recordings—fascinating audio of the commander-in-chief fishing for yes-men approval from his dream team, spewing homophobic vitriol at All In The Family, and hoisting himself on his own self-surveillance petard. Damning and oddly hilarious as they remain, the tapes are old news; many are available on YouTube, and rather than create strange tensions between the ancient conversations and the recovered footage, director Penny Lane mostly just treats the scenes’ visual component like a screensaver. She has no grand or trenchant political agenda with Our Nixon, which largely conveys familiar information—not just about the president’s policies, but also his psychology—through unfamiliar means. The film’s value lies in the sad little narrative it tells about the Nixon White House, a place where smart young men built bonds of surrogate family, immortalized on grainy celluloid, only to watch as their patriarch let them take the fall for his failures.