We all know about the Nixon White House tapes, right? Well, what about the Nixon-aide home movies? During Tricky Dick’s presidency from 1969 through 1973, three White House staffers recorded more than 500 reels of Super 8 footage. Seized during the FBI’s Watergate investigation and filed away for more than 40 years, they’re coming to light for the first time in this innovative documentary composed solely of found footage: news stories, old interviews and those infamous audio recordings.
Our Nixon presents the Nixon White House as experienced by three of the president’s top advisors: chief of staff H.R. “Bob” Haldeman, a young ad man as square as his signature crew cut; chief domestic advisor John Ehrlichman (stay after the end credits for a hilarious clip from his post-White House career); and deputy assistant Dwight Chapin, another youngster who strikes an eerie resemblance to Mad Men’s Bob Benson. Starting with Nixon’s inauguration in 1969, they have a front-row seat during an incredible period in American history, including Vietnam War protests, the Apollo moon landing and the first presidential visit to China, as well as lighter moments like Tricia Nixon’s White House wedding.
The footage reveals an initially motivated yet relaxed, even jovial, staff dealing with a needy and paranoid boss capable of stunning denial. (All three were pushed out of office in the wake of Watergate.)
Director Penny Lane (her real name!) approaches their story with a welcome sense of humor, rendering the opening credits like an ’80s-era sitcom set to Tracey Ullman’s “They Don’t Know About Us” (I don’t/listen to the guys who say/that you’re bad for me and I should turn you away.). She also includes evidence of the filmmakers’ guy’s-guy sense of humor (shots of horse shit) and fascination with backyard wildlife like birds and squirrels, which she uses as background to Nixon’s taped conversations. (Super 8 was the era’s Instagram and Vine.)
But as fascinating as this peek into daily life at the Nixon White House is, the real power of Our Nixon is its poignant insight into how the impeachable situation unfolded within the president’s inner circle and how it affected the careers and personal relationships of Haldeman, Ehrlichman and Chapin. One phone call featured late in the film between Haldeman and his former boss right after the chief of staff was fired is particularly shocking for Nixon’s hubris.
Found in Ehrlichman’s office after his resignation and acquired from the Haldeman estate, these home movies might never have been preserved were it not for the 4K digital scans paid for by the production. Without Our Nixon, not only may they not have ever been seen, but they may have been lost forever—giving the film further significance as an archival project as well as a historical document.
Director: Penny Lane
Starring: H.R. “Bob” Haldeman, Dwight Chapin, John Ehrlichman
Release date: Aug. 30, 2013