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A favorable, if surface exploration of an immensely checkered administration
The video camera and the audio recorder are two of the most powerful tools ever to be invented in human history, mainly because they are so neutral no matter what is placed in front of them. They are designed to do one thing and that is to capture whatever is placed in front of them or around them, along with playing the audio/video back at any given time. It's no doubt both tools can be abused if put into the wrong hands, but it's also no doubt that the tools can be used to seek out the truth in times of uncertainty.
Penny Lane's Our Nixon is a documentary that uses archival video footage from the time of Nixon's presidency, along with an extensive library of audio files, to tell the story of Nixon's presidency in his own words. After the famous Watergate trials, over five-hundred Super 8 reels were put in a government vault and left untouched for many years. How the team behind Our Nixon obtained a great deal of them is a mystery, but many of them are compiled into a film that plans to allow Nixon and his cabinet a voice if decades have passed since the scandal. The result is an interesting, albeit listless documentary that functions with enough satisfaction to delight viewers and history-hounds.
The footage we are watching is directed by Nixon's chief of staff H.R. Haldeman, his domestic affairs adviser John Ehrlichman, or his personal assistant Dwight Chapin, all of which were tried in the Watergate trials. The archival footage shows many things, whether it be Nixon's vacations or trips, his speeches, or simply traditional actions carried out in the White House. The most interesting tidbits are when recordings of from the White House wiretaps are played, one of which housing Nixon's opinion of the homosexuality on TV's All in the Family. Other wiretapping instances show an occasionally vulgar Nixon commenting on the current world and his presidency in a nicely unfiltered manner. Also spliced in are news reports and older interviews with Haldeman, Ehrlichman, and Chapin, which provide for an opinion on the aftermath of Watergate and the Nixon presidency.
Our Nixon hits documentary-heights when pieces of information like this manage to slip through the cracks. When it plays long, disjointed videos and clobbers them together without much of a thesis or underlying commentary, it becomes monotonous. The recordings allow for a deeper and less filtered look at the president. The recordings (and the videos) were never intended to be seen by anyone outside of the tight-knit White House circle, so the fact that we're grateful enough to see this material is a miracle. Because of this, Nixon talks in an unsurprising but notably lax manner, and we are presented with a man not diluted by the presence of TV cameras or a microphone; just him and his thoughts.
It's only a shame that Lane and her crew weren't able to string along these clips with continuity and a clear message. The entire idea and goal of this project was to establish a more intimate view on Nixon as a president and a man subject to enough trouble and bad-press to eventually resign from being the President of the United States. It succeeds at its goal to an extent, but evidently confuses intimacy for traditionalism and commonality in routine. Nothing here is as shocking or, more importantly, interesting as the producers and filmmakers seem to think, leaving a large hole in the documentary's ultimate goal.
There's entertainment in the documentary. The only real issue is that I'm afraid even those who read history religiously will find Our Nixon a bit lacking in that department. By the time Watergate is introduced, the film seems to go down a similar paths a historical, political documentary would. The aforementioned entertainment stems from the authenticity of the audio recordings and the home movies, which keep the film at least buoyant as a gimmick. It's just a little upsetting to report that there is no attempt at a formal thesis to give a documentary like this more life and meaning other than surface-level exploration.
Starring: Richard Nixon, H.R. Haldeman, John Ehrlichman, Dwight Chapin, Henry Kissinger, Ron Ziegler, and Larry Higby. Directed by: Penny Lane.
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