Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Our Nixon: We’ll Always Have Him to Kick Around

These days, when the NSA knows what’s on your Netflix queue and the IRS might audit you if you have too many John Wayne movies on it, one cannot help feeling nostalgia for the Nixon years.  Indeed, it was a more innocent era, when the government was secretly taping itself.  As if there were not enough tapes already, it turns out three of Nixon’s top aides also happened to be keen amateur super8 videographers, who constantly documented the history unfolding around them.  The not very widely seen home movies of H.R. Haldeman, John Erhlichman, and Dwight Chapin are blended together with generous helpings of news footage and other kinds of tapes in Penny Lane’s docu-collage Our Nixon (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

It is hard to get a handle on just what exactly Our Nixon is, starting with whether it is a feature film or a television special.  One of the first releases from CNN’s new theatrical arm, it has already aired on the second place cable news network.  Some have also taken issue with its subversive (some might say deceptive) editing style, in which the ellipses between events portrayed on screen are glossed over.  Strict historical chronology takes a backseat to sly, ironic humor.  That would be fine, provided the labeling was a bit more accurate and up-front.

Be that as it may, there are telling moments in Our Nixon, but rarely with respects to its ostensible subject.  Frankly, the film ought to be called Our Haldeman, Erlichman, and Chapin.  On good terms up until the bitter end, the three top aides apparently filmed each other as much as R.N., if not more so.  Haldeman in particular emerges as a rather decent sort, caught up in a whirlwind not of his own making.

With regards to the big question, Lane’s samplings essentially exonerate Nixon of any premeditated complicity in the original break-in.  Ironically, it was pretty clearly his compulsive need to micromanage the response (cover-up) that brought him down.  Still, Penny Lane (cue trumpet solo) did not set out to do any favors for Nixon’s image, choosing clips that accentuate his insecurities and craven craving for approval.  Poor Haldeman often sounds like Nixon’s shrink.

Our Nixon offers some decent material on the Nixon’s visit to China, but there is nothing particularly invaluable or newsworthy here.  The film has no surprising revelations, no smoking guns, and no secret Salinger novels, just some jokes regarding everyone’s squareness.  Almost as much a work of cultural history as political history, it is interesting to parse the film’s time capsule images.  Still, there is no escaping the slightness of the film (regardless of its authority or lack thereof).  Arguably, Our Nixon really is better suited for television viewing.  Nonetheless, it opens theatrically this Friday (8/30) in New York at the IFC Center, largely for Watergate junkies who missed it on CNN.