Our Nixon: Rotterdam Review

Our Nixon Film Still - H 2013

Our Nixon Film Still - H 2013

Efficient found-footage collage is more evocative than revelatory.

Penny Lane's documentary showcases long-sequestered "home movie" footage shot by Nixon-era White House staff.

A disarmingly jaunty peek into a notoriously dark era of recent American history, Our Nixon collages archival footage from various sources to provide fresh perspectives on the 37th president. Catnip for audiences fascinated by Richard Nixon, Watergate and/or the presidency, it's an enjoyable if ultimately somewhat unsatisfying enterprise from director Penny Lane and her husband Brian Frye that found favor with audiences, critics and programmers when world-premiering at Rotterdam. Available in 85-minute and 58-minute versions, it's a solid option for nonfiction festivals and public-service broadcasters alike, especially in the wake of the 2012 presidential election and the great success of Steven Spielberg's Lincoln. 

Nixon  was himself given the epic biopic treatment courtesy of Oliver Stone and Anthony Hopkins in 1995, of course, while Robert Altman and Philip Baker Hall had speculated about the president's more clandestine motivations in 1984 chamber piece Secret Honor. Director Lane and her co-writer/co-producer Frye eschew dramatizations and re-creations, relying entirely on materials shot by others. The principal source is the cache of 8mm "home movies" filmed by key Nixon staffers H.R.Haldeman, John Ehrlichman and Dwight Chapin, all of whom would serve jail time for their role in the Watergate scandal that led to Nixon's spectacular downfall.

Opening titles announce that "for 40 years these films sat in a government vault," and here they are used to illustrate key episodes from Nixon's 1969-74 presidency in conjunction with contemporary TV reports -- the latter marked with a handy date-stamp -- and later talking-head interviews with each of the three amateur movie-makers. While the overall tenor doesn't indicate a desire to rehabilitate the disgraced president, the Nixon that emerges is at times unexpectedly humorous, a commanding and charismatic public speaker, surrounded by aides who seem genuine in their amazement that their spell in government has gone down in history as "an era of criminality."

The films themselves don't actually reveal that much about the workings of the Nixon White House, however, rather than support Haldeman's comment that the staff's "sense of humor was the leveling factor." They are used by Lane primarily as a delivery mechanism for us to appreciate extracts from audio tapes -- the bulk of which were recorded using Nixon's own legendary concealed apparatus and have been in the public domain since 2007.

For understandable reasons, the amount of film shot by Haldeman, Ehrlichman and Chapin reduces significantly once Watergate's ramifications really start to kick in following the 1972 election, but editor Francisco Bello so skillfully interweaves crackly extracts from the major TV networks -- Walter Cronkite bags plenty of screentime -- that by this stage we're fully absorbed in the house of cards' steady, noisy collapse. A little of Hrishikesh Hirway's busy score, however, goes a long way, his stylings tending to distract from material that's usually strong enough to speak for itself.

From time to time Lane and Frye do find decidedly juicy material in the 8mm stash, such as the epochal trip to China in the winter of 1971 that including an evening at the Peking Opera for a performance of Red Detachment of Women. And then there's one truly jaw-dropping segment, pretty much justifying the price of admission on its own, in which an immaculately coiffed member of the easy-listening group Harry Conniff and His Singers stages a polite anti-war protest ("President Nixon, please stop killing human beings") at a private White House event, just before the troupe blithely launch into a smoothly perky rendition of Jazz Age hit "Ma, He's Makin' Eyes at Me."

Venue: Rotterdam Film Festival (Bright Future)
Production company: Dipper Films
Director: Penny Lane
Producers-screenwriters: Brian Frye, Penny Lane
Executive producers: 
Dan Cogan, Jenny Raskin, Louis Venezia, Rebecca Ritchie Brower
Music: Hrishikesh Hirway
Editor: Francisco Bello
Sales agent: Autlook, Vienna
No MPAA rating, 85 minutes (shorter version runs 58 minutes)