Penny Lane’s archival-footage documentary about Richard Nixon, Our Nixon, is a delightful addition to the canon of films, novels, histories and operas about the 37th President of the United States—the only one of that illustrious brethren to ever resign. In Nixon’s case, he beat it out of the door just one step ahead of an impeachment-minded Congress.
“Delightful” probably sounds odd when talking about Tricky Dick, but it fits. Lane and co-producer Bryan L. Frye gained access to a treasure trove of Super 8 “home movies” shot by Nixon aides H.R. “Bob” Haldeman, John Ehrlichman and Dwight Chapin from their first days in the White House, and that were confiscated during the Watergate prosecutions and locked up for decades. We now see Nixon and his staff the way they saw themselves: jolly fellows on a great adventure running the world. (Tracey Ullman’s retro pop hit “They Don’t Know” plays, appropriately and amusingly, over the opening credits.)
And here they all are: Nixon beaming at inaugurals one and two; Ehrlichman smiling as he is captured while filming with his own Super 8 camera; Nixon and company at the Great Wall of China; Henry Kissinger grinning while chatting up the ladies at a fancy dinner party; and Nixon dancing with daughter Tricia at her White House wedding to current New York state Republican Chairman Ed Cox.
The footage is silent, so the soundtrack is culled from various sources, including broadcasts and the infamous Nixon tapes. The latter are a perfect counterpoint to the home movies. There’s a hilarious exchange in which Nixon complains that Kissinger lacks decorum because his National Security Advisor won’t stop chasing women in Washington, D.C.
The jaunty mood doesn’t last, even with Nixon’s landslide reelection in 1972 (he won more than 500 Electoral College votes). The Vietnam War drags on, and opposition to the war grows. This makes the naturally paranoid Nixon even more suspicious of everyone. And he had reason to be wary: There’s a jaw-dropping moment at a White House concert when a grinning Nixon introduces the easy-listening choral group Ray Conniff Singers as being “square . . . just the way I like it,” and then one of the singers promptly reads an antiwar statement.
The Pentagon Papers and Watergate follow, and soon the formerly jolly fellows are up to their necks in trouble. Nixon’s tirades grow angrier: In a rant for the ages, he rages against the “homosexual propaganda” on the TV comedy All in the Family.
Lane bridges the color 8 MM footage with (mostly) black-and-white vintage newscasts that complement the home movies, and vintage post-White House interviews with Haldeman, Ehrlichman and Chapin that fill in some blanks.
The newscasts also serve to remind us of a time when TV journalists were literate and could write terrific copy: Yes, I’m looking at you, Dan Rather.
There’s no narration, just the occasional helpful intertitle to fill in the gaps. The result isn’t—and doesn’t try to be—“definitive,” but it’s an engaging portrait of the Nixon era. The extras on this DVD (from Docurama Films) include a boatload of additional (silent) footage from this archive of 8 MM goodies.