Hot Docs Review: 'Our Nixon'

Our Nixon
(USA, 85 min.)
Dir. Penny Lane
Programme: Special Presentations (Canadian Premiere)
A great documentary finds a kind of truth in the filmmaking process itself. Our Nixon, the new film from director Penny Lane, should knock the socks off documentary fans thanks to its phenomenal editing job that brings a story to life unlike few I’ve seen at Hot Docs this year. Lane and producer Brian L. Frye combed through a gargantuan collection of archival footage and devised a perceptive story by putting the pieces together with a shrewd eye for re-constructing history. Our Nixon is an impressive feat of filmmaking that playfully writes an alternative take on history using the frames of a story we all thought we’ve seen before.

It would actually be a mistake to approach Our Nixon expecting a look at Tricky Dick himself. The former President is certainly in the foreground of much of the footage, but Our Nixon is really about the three aides behind the cameras of these Presidential home movies. Nixon’s close aides, friends, and confidants H.R. “Bob” Halderman, John Ehrlichman, and Dwight Chapin were also amateur film buffs. Like the current generation of kids that sees everything through a viewfinder, the three aides captured the years of the Nixon administration through the lens of their Super 8 cameras. Nixon’s unofficial biographers shot over 500 reels of home movies, which were then seized with all the other evidence from the Nixon administration when it was investigated for the Watergate affair.

The footage of Our Nixon has a spunky energy that one doesn’t expect for a study of four Republican squares. Nixon himself is a stuffy oddball—although his candid gaffs on both audio and video are quite funny, if only for how well they reveal how tightly wound he is—but Our Nixon grants the three aides a surprising sense of progressiveness and optimism. The footage reveals an obvious affection for the President, and the three men are like a symbolic stand-in for the portion of America that saw Richard Nixon as a pioneer who could usher America through a very difficult time. The behind-the-scenes style look at the President offers an insider’s glimpse at the incongruous nature of the Nixon years, which is highlighted especially well in one except in which the President introduces a vocal group by self-deprecatingly referring to his preference for “square” entertainment. A singer then pulls out a sign of protest and pumps an anti-Nixon tirade into the microphone as the rest of her group files onstage. The show goes on and the crowd reacts as if the Brigitte DePape moment never happened.

Splicing together this mix of home movies along with news reels and audio recordings from the Oval Office (Nixon was a fanatical archivist himself), Our Nixon builds a narrative of America’s loss of innocence circa the Vietnam War and Nixon’s collapse into scandal via the Watergate affair. Halderman, Ehrlichman, and Chapin are portrayed as the fall guys for Watergate, or like sons who were sold out by their father as he tried to save his own skin. There’s a peculiar openness to the puzzle playing that the filmmakers do with the footage. Our Nixon doesn’t make set an agenda for condemning the Nixon years, since the President actually comes off quite favourably even though the film paints a tragedy using his betrayal of his three aides. Instead, the filmmakers choose unexpected images from the Nixon years, such as a shot of a squirrel burying nuts in the White House garden and pair it with an audio cue of Tricky Dick doing some housekeeping with an aide over the phone. There’s a unique, ironic humour to the associative reconstruction of the Nixon years. (Fans of Lane’s short films will be happy to see her sense of humour on full display.) Is this really the same Nixon who was responsible for such a dark chapter of American history?

This impressive archival film displays a laudable breadth of research and intuition by Lane and Frye, plus an excellent editing job by Francisco Bello. Our Nixon’s intelligent playfulness with the Nixon tapes shows the freedom a filmmaker—or anyone—has for telling history. The film shrewdly shows us how history all depends on context, and how newsmakers, journalists, filmmakers, et al can selectively choose which stories become history and which stories do not make the headlines. Our Nixon smartly leaves the familiarities of the Nixon years on the cutting room floor and uses rare candid footage from a turning point in American history to give us something we haven’t seen before. This is a great documentary because it reveals a chapter of history that’s lied tucked away in the archives for far too long. Our Nixon shows that the stories we tell are never the full story, and for each story we hear, these at least three more to be told. Film buffs, history buffs, and storytellers of all kinds must see Our Nixon.

Rating: ★★★★ (out of ★★★★★) 

Our Nixon Screens:
Monday, April 29 – 3:00 pm at TIFF Bell Lightbox
Sunday, May 5 – 1:30 pm at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema

Please visit www.hotdocs.ca for more info on films, tickets, and showtimes.