Critic’s Pick: ‘Our Nixon’

Thelma Adams
·Writer

Must-See Movies Beyond the Blockbusters

The film equivalent of political selfies, Penny Lane’s documentary "Our Nixon" sifts through 500 reels of Super 8 film taken by the inner circle – H.R. Haldeman, John Erlichman and Dwight Chapin -- at the Richard M. Nixon White House four decades ago. Seen here for the first time, the edited home movies are unquestionably a treasure trove, a candid and often humorous peek behind the scenes that was never intended to be shown outside the participants’ living rooms. They are essentially home movies like the ones we have at home of my sister and me dancing in the surf at Catalina, or me throwing a fit at Poinsettia Park -- only with 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue as that home and the humor-impaired Nixon as the dad-in-chief.

The films fascinate for their naiveté, in the same way our home movies appear when we watch them as adults with our kids. (Was there really life before cell phones and email?) They are filled with White House lawn Easter egg hunts (with an Easter Bunny who could have escaped from "The Shining") and kids' birthday parties, adjacent to state visits to China and the Vatican. At that political whistle stop, the cameraman pans from the pomp and circumstance, to a pile of horse poop – these were not meant for the public, and the commentary is easy to interpret.

A priceless sequence occurs when the folk group The New Christie Minstrels play at a White House soiree, and one singer steps forward to challenge Nixon’s policies in Vietnam before stepping back to harmonize sweetly with the group. It encapsulates a distant time. Similarly, when Chief of Staff turned co-conspirator H. R. Haldeman, in crew cut, talks about his son’s long hair and admits his boy is the fashionable one while he’s out of step is a simple insight that resonates. It was a time when the battle lines were clearly drawn – and Nixon was the Square-in-Chief.

Like our own home movies, the sequences are fascinating for themselves, but roll by roll they don’t build to a standard narrative. It's when filmmaker Lane tries to shoehorn them into a sequential tale of the rise-and-fall of the Nixon White House adding in news clips, audiotapes and contemporary interviews that the movie stumbles. The raw material doesn't easily bend to an agitprop narrative. The enthusiastic amateur cinematographers who ultimately went to prison for their fearless leader following the Watergate scandal had, in these intimate and disjointed home movies, assembled to praise Nixon -- and by reflection themselves -- not to bury him.

Bottom Line: Fascinating Found Footage from the Nixon White House

Watch The Trailer for "Our Nixon"