CNN has picked up director Penny Lane’s Our Nixon, which is culled from hundreds or hours of intimate home videos shot by the 37th president’s closest aides. The cable network plans to premiere the film in August while Cinedigm will release it theatrically.
The feature-length documentary, which recently screened at the New Directors/New Films festival in New York, is made up of more than 500 reels shot between 1969 and 1973 by President Richard Nixon’s chief of staff H.R. Haldeman, domestic affairs adviser John Ehrlichman and special assistant Dwight Chapin.
The tapes encompass the violent protests during the Vietnam War, Nixon’s 1972 trip to China (during which he was accompanied by ABC’s Barbara Walters), the 1969 Apollo Moon landing and the 1971 White House wedding of first daughter Tricia Nixon.
The FBI confiscated the tapes during the Watergate investigation but they were subsequently transferred to the Nixon Presidential Library in Yorba Linda, Calif. where they languished largely unnoticed until about ten years ago. That’s when Brian L. Frye, a University of Kentucky law professor (who is a co-producer on Our Nixon with Lane) heard about them from a friend who was hired by the National Archives to work on preserving the tapes. Frye and Lane paid $20,000 to make a video transfer of the footage and raised about $15,000 on Kickstarter to fund their project. There is no audio on the tapes, so they’ve used archival interviews with Nixon as well as Haldeman, Ehrlichman and Chapin.
“The personal footage reveals a multidimensional president and staff who are heartbreakingly earnest, idealistic and naïve, as well as self-protective, suspicious and cynical,” said Lane. “Our goal was to invite viewers to re-examine their prior assumptions about Nixon and come to their own conclusions about what the era means.”
Chapin, who is a business consultant living in East Hampton, N.Y., declined Lane and Frye’s request for a fresh interview for the project.
Our Nixon marks the latest acquisition for CNN Films, which was created last fall and has since snapped up rights to several films including Life Itself, a documentary about film critic Roger Ebert who died April 4. The network is in the throes of an attempted turn-around under new CNN Worldwide president Jeff Zucker that includes broadening the scope of its programming from films to unscripted series. (Anthony Bourdain's Parts Unknown recently launched to healthy ratings.) And CNN Films has signed development deals with documentary filmmakers including Alex Gibney (who has a relationship with HBO) and Page One's Andrew Rossi.