For those raised on The West Wing and stories about the Cuban Missile Crisis, the most surprising thing about President-focused documentary footage is always how good-natured everybody seems to be. That’s because, while the White House might be home to the most singularly powerful political office in the world, not to mention some of the most grandiose and/or self-important men to ever walk the planet, it’s still to some degree an office like any other. You can’t deal with issues of detente and Congressional brinkmanship 24 hours a day; occasionally even the most dedicated wonks need to gossip, play pranks, and complain about coworkers. This workaday domesticity is one of the reasons Penny Lane’s absorbing home-movie documentary Our Nixon so inexplicably fascinating.
Between 1969 and 1973, three of Richard Nixon’s top staffers were obsessively filming their experiences with Super-8 cameras. Over those four-odd years, chief of state H.R. Haldeman, domestic affairs adviser John Ehrlichmann, and special assistant Dwight Chapin shot some 500 reels of everything from the White House Easter egg hunt to Nixon’s visit to China. Lane uses that enhanced and cleaned-up footage — the reels had mostly been sitting forgotten in the National Archives for the past several decades — as a grainy and shrouded tapestry against which to lay out the story of Nixon’s demise. The audio is a mix of older audio snippets from the time and more recent interviews in which Nixon and his loyal aides-de-camp discuss the various crises that were both flung at them and which they (well, Nixon himself) created.
The film is a pastiche of sorts that can’t make much claim to strict authenticity, there’s too much mixing of time periods for that to be the case. But in the usage of perky pop tunes, lackadaisical moments of relaxation, and verbally triangulating the genuinely warm feelings that all three men had for each other and their boss at the time (or at least that they said they felt), Lane captures a sense of camaraderie that’s rare in any kind of presidential history. Even though all three men would go down in history, and in some cases to jail, with the tar of Watergate smeared all over them, there’s little notion here that they regretted fighting the fight. This is even though the Nixon who emerges from their footage, along with interviews and clips from Nixon’s own tape recordings, is precisely the president that everybody remembers: venal, paranoid, predatory, acerbic, Archie Bunker-furious about how the country is changing, and ready to chuck any of his men to the wolves once the investigations begin. He’s less the tragic, Shakespearean figure undone by his own hubris and inner demons beloved by so many writers and filmmakers, but rather like the angry, embittered father or uncle of many viewers’ holiday home visit.
The home-movie aspect of Our Nixon gives it the nostalgic and uncomfortable feel of unexpectedly coming across old footage of family members in years past, the fuzzed-out film capturing physical totems that tug at the memory while you try to read what’s behind everyone’s expressions. In Lane’s patchwork concoction of primary evidence, the true story remains unknown, just as it does with old family films. Just because people are grinning while the camera’s on doesn’t mean they’re happy.