Tricky Dick rides again in “Our Nixon”

Our Nixon, shown at the 2013 Los Angeles Film Festival, is a compilation film by Penny Lane about the only U.S. president who resigned and left office in disgrace. The documentary is largely composed of and culled from 500 hours of never-publicly-seen-before Super 8 home movies shot by three Nixon aides that were seized by the FBI during the Watergate investigation, then filed away and forgotten, until the intrepid (and obstreperous) Lane unearthed and rescued this cinematic treasure trove for posterity. She has shaped out of the raw material of this footage an eye-opening insider’s glimpse of President Richard Milhous Nixon and his benighted administration.

Lane painstakingly matches sound and wry musical choices to the silent chronicles and adds archival video from network news vaults. From a formal point of view this is a fascinating exercise in cinema vérité. The fly-on-the-wall Nixon remix includes celluloid shot by Nixon’s advisor John Ehrlichman, Chief of Staff H. R. “Bob” Haldeman, and special assistant Dwight Chapin. The documentary reminds us how young this regime’s hacks and hatchet men were: Ehrlichman was 43, Haldeman 34, and Chapin a mere 27. But boy, were they ever on the wrong side of the ’60’s/’70’s generational divide!

Chapin, the youngest, went to college with dirty trickster Donald Segretti, whose Nixonian specialty was “ratf*cking” the Democrats (pardon my French, but the Nixon administration was known for its “expletives deleted”), such as: the phony “Canuck” letter to presidential candidate Sen. Edmund Muskie that supposedly caused him to cry and appear weak; tossing marbles on the ground at a Democratic rally, and other pranks gone berserk.

Our Nixon contains great behind-the-scenes footage of historic events, such as Tricky Dick’s 1972 breakthrough Beijing trip, where the veteran anti-communist met with Mao and applauded a performance of the revolutionary ballet The Red Detachment of Women. The doc also has surprises, such as: Did you know that the right’s idiot savant, William F. Buckley, was on Nixon’s China trip? And Tricky Dick’s comments on Henry Kissinger (the National Security Advisor’s sex life is far more offensive to Nixon than his mass murdering), eavesdropping, approval ratings, etc., are eyebrow- and hair-raising.

The documentary’s most jaw-dropping moment took place not behind closed doors in the Oval Office but in the White House’s East Room on Jan. 28, 1972, when Nixon, presiding over a dinner marking the 50th anniversary of Reader’s Digest, introduced the decidedly unhip Ray Conniff Singers by defiantly snarling: “And if the music is square, it’s because I like it square.” But then, one of the singers did something cool enough to give Nixon indigestion. Canadian alto Carole Feraci held up a banner saying, “Stop the Killing,” and proclaimed to the astonished crowd (that included aviator Charles Lindbergh, astronaut Frank Borman, and Alice Roosevelt Longworth): “President Nixon, stop bombing human beings … You go to church on Sundays and pray to Jesus Christ. If Jesus Christ were here tonight, you would not dare to drop another bomb.” As the bandleader tried to snatch Feraci’s banner, the 30-year-old held onto it and added: “Bless the Berrigans and bless Daniel Ellsberg.”

Penny Lane is the perfect name for someone who compiles documentaries out of archival footage: After all, the Beatles song entitled “Penny Lane” is all about a trip down, well, memory lane. After the Los Angeles Festival screening of the film, Penny Lane did a Q&A, and buttons declaring, “Hi. I’m an effete, impudent intellectual snob,” were handed out to viewers. Our Nixon is a pointed reminder about the U.S. surveillance state run amok as America grapples with another presidential Big Brother snooping scandal today. Watch for local release.

Our Nixon
Directed by Penny Lane
2013, 84 min.


Ed Rampell
Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell is an LA-based film historian and critic, author of "Progressive Hollywood: A People’s Film History of the United States," and co-author of "The Hawaii Movie and Television Book." He has written for Variety, Television Quarterly, Cineaste, New Times L.A., and other publications. Rampell lived in Tahiti, Samoa, Hawaii, and Micronesia, reporting on the nuclear-free and independent Pacific and Hawaiian Sovereignty movements.