Our Nixon (2013)

our_nixon_postcard_iffr_sxsw

“The trouble with a tape is that, unlike a witness, you cannot cross-examine it. If it has been cut, it wlll not say so. Unlike a witness, it can only repeat what is on it and carries no trace of its history in its countenance and demeanor. ” – Mary McCarthy, The Mask of State: Watergate Portraits

The Nixon presidency, as everyone knows, had a mania for recording technology, from voice-activated recording machines hidden in the Oval Office, to spying on their perceived enemies through wire-taps. It was the famous “Watergate tapes” that helped crumble the 37th President, but a new documentary, Our Nixon, directed by Penny Lane, shows that that mania for technology, in all its guises, also had a benign place in the Nixon administration. Nixon staffers H.R. Haldeman, John Ehrlichman, and Dwight Chapin (all of whom would do time for their roles in the Watergate scandal) took Super 8 films of their entire time at the White House. The tapes were confiscated by the FBI during the initial Watergate investigation and have not been seen by the public until now. Lane and her co-writer and co-producer Brian Frye, have created a documentary that shows the Nixon presidency from the inside, using the “found footage” of these Super 8 tapes, along with footage from television broadcasts from that time. While interview footage is also used (Mike Wallace’s famous interview with Haldeman, Barbara Walters’ interview with Haldeman, an interview with Ehrlichman from much later, and a 2007 interview with Dwight Chapin), there are no “talking heads” in this documentary. It is made up entirely of archive material.

Our_Nixon_3-2-800x600-620x465

The Super 8 footage ranges from the utterly fascinating (a camera snuck into the Peking Opera House to film The Red Detachment of Women, the production put on for Nixon’s historic visit to Red China), to the banal (the guys sunning themselves on the White House lawn holding cocktails and laughing), to the puerile (a closeup of a pile of horse feces), to the strangely poetic (the luscious rose garden at the White House). There is one shot on top of the Great Wall of China where two of the guys are standing filming each other. There is one shot that returns throughout the film, probably taken by Ehrlichman, of Nixon and Haldeman on Air Force One, huddled together, talking quietly, with light falling through on them from the window outside. It is a beautiful shot, and it is also evocative of the conspiratorial nature of the administration. Chapin later referred to life at the White House as a “brilliantly lighted badly run television show”.

nixon4

Nothing much is illuminated about the Nixon administration in Our Nixon, nothing that we don’t already know. The point isn’t to humanize Nixon et al, although there are some moments where you do pity them (Chapin, in particular). The footage itself is a real find, and Lane and her editor, Francisco Bello, have done a great job of putting it all together, although some of the juxtapositions are juvenile (Haldeman and Nixon making homophobic comments as we watch Haldeman’s loving footage of flower beds and pretty roses). I would suggest that “if the jokes write themselves”, then find some better jokes. (There’s so much footage you can’t believe the guys ever put the cameras down to do some actual work.)

After every television speech he made, Nixon would call Haldeman to talk about it (and, of course, record the telephone conversation). Haldeman would have already gotten some responses from the press, from other politicians, which he would share with the President, but mostly what he did was echo Nixon’s own opinion about how well it went. There are some cringe-worthy moments where Nixon praises his own delivery and the emotion behind it, in that detached third-person way he had of referring to himself. We’ve seen the speech. He seems awkward, uncomfortable, and un-trustworthy. This is not just retrospect, that was often what contemporary polls said about him as well, and was a common issue throughout his political life. If you have to work that hard at seeming warm and relatable, you’ve got some problems. So Haldeman saying to him, “Oh yes, it was great, really emotional, really warm”, and only reading back to him the responses of people who liked it … You sense the closed-information-loop the administration was in, and how Haldeman’s role was to reflect back only what Nixon wanted to hear. I mean, that’s what friends are for, yes? Often friends should buck you up if you are feeling down or insecure … but it’s a whole different ballgame when your “friend” is the Leader of the Free World. Placed against the lingering meandering shot of the colorful roses in the White House garden, or footage of birds scratching around in the dirt outside the window, these conversations take on a ghostly aspect.

In later interviews, Haldeman, Ehrlichman and Chapin all talked about the feeling in those initial years, of excitement and purpose. They were all young guys. They had kids the same age, were at the same stages of life. Haldeman talks about the “sense of humor” shared by the staff, an interesting comment coming from a man who was perceived as so frightening, with his crewcut, square jaw, and intimidating face. But the footage shows a lot of horseplay, a lot of goofing off. Naturally, once the Watergate situation begins to unfold, the Super 8 stuff starts to die out, and the news footage takes over.

I think it was Ehrlichman who said that Nixon liked to create watertight compartments of information in his administration, so that no one would ever have the full picture of what was going on. John Dean’s Watergate testimony also spoke to that. There was a sense of a common enemy pressing in on them, and that the purpose of the Presidency was … basically to protect the White House from its own enemies. The paranoia was rampant. Ehrlichman, in a later interview included in Our Nixon, said that he felt that that focus was “unsatisfying” to him, personally. He wanted to be in politics, not defend the status quo of one man. Take it with a grain of salt, but that’s what he said. Haldeman was Nixon’s alter ego, and didn’t seem to have any political convictions outside of the feeling that Nixon should be protected and should win at all costs.

375112dd8418cef6f0cdb5b336cc50cf

There is an absolutely astonishing moment captured by one of the Super 8 cameras, during a concert by the Ray Coniff Singers held at the East Room in the White House in 1972. Nixon introduces the group, saying that the music may be “square” but that’s why likes it. Laughter and applause. The group files onto the stage, men and women, and before the concert can begin, one of the singers unrolls a sign that reads ‘STOP THE KILLING’ and makes a speech (clearly surprising her fellow singers, one of whom tries to take the sign from her), asking President Nixon to stop the bombing, and she ends with, “Bless Daniel Ellsberg.” Her voice is perfectly polite. When she finishes her speech, there is a long awkward silence, and then the singers begin their first number, which is a jaunty version of “Ma, He’s Makin’ Eyes at Me.” The song sounds positively psychotic, coming right after her speech. (The whole scene is a reminder that even “square” folks, like the girl in what very well could be the squarest singing group of all time, were political rebels. Nixon REALLY wasn’t safe if the “squares” started protesting too.)

Some have criticized Our Nixon for trying to humanize what was proven to be a criminal administration, and there has been a controversy about whether or not the film is accurate. Accuracy seems somewhat beside the point. Our Nixon is not supposed to be an entry in an encyclopedia. It is a bizarre through-the-looking-glass snapshot of a time and a place, recorded by the men who were there, men who were soon to be rightly Infamous.

“Our Nixon” is out in theaters now (at least in New York). It probably won’t be around long, but will definitely get a lot of television play. It already ran on CNN.

This entry was posted in Movies and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

19 Responses to Our Nixon (2013)

  1. Fiddlin Bill says:

    Great review (of course!). Having lived through all that, I’m not sure I want to see any of those people again, but you make the film sound excellent. I had never heard of the Ray Coniff incident, which is really rather surprising, and probably a small example of how the press then shielded the public from some truthful things. (Or maybe it was big news and I missed it–not impossible either.) Watergate in real time was riveting and I was glued to the TV, month after month. Butterfield’s revelation–does this movie show any inside reaction to that? That was the moment when it all collapsed. The distinction you note–that the home movies kinda ended with Watergate, makes me think of the arc of “The Young Lions,” from the triumphant first year of the war to loss after loss after loss.

    • sheila says:

      Fiddlin’ Bill – They don’t go into the details of the Watergate hearings – not to that level – they focused on what happened to the three main guys – Chapin (who, of course, resigned – I believe he was the first one to “go” in the administration – he was a sacrificial lamb, the youngest of all of them) – Ehrlichman and Haldeman.

      Tell me about Butterfield? What happened there?

      Yeah, the Ray Coniff moment – WOW. I believe it’s now on Youtube. I am not sure what the event was, or I can’t remember – and I don’t know if it was covered by the press at the time. Interesting, your point though: the restraint of the press, which was certainly shattered by Watergate itself. Since the filming of the Coniff singers was in-house, so to speak – it was clearly one of the three guys, Chapin, Ehrlichman or Haldeman filming it – it would have been easy to keep it under wraps. But it would be interesting to look back and see if it was covered by the press at the time. It’s fascinating footage. She is a brunette, wearing a gown (all the women were wearing gowns) – and she is not hyped up or angry – she is totally polite – says her piece, rolls up the sign – and then they all start singing “Ma He’s Making Eyes At Me”.

      CUCKOO footage, for real!!!

  2. sheila says:

    Oh, and humorous sidenote: One of my earliest memories in my life is watching Nixon talk on television. I had to be about 4 or 5. I remember saying, “He looks mad.”

    This is the memory. I have no idea what else is attached to it. I should ask my Mum if she remembers it. It would be later, in middle school, that I became obsessed with Watergate, which I’ve written about before. I saw the movie All the President’s Men and got the book out from the library. I remember my civics teacher being so impressed that I was reading it. He was circling the room, up and down the aisles, during a quiz – I was working on my quiz – and my books were in a pile in the corner of my desk. He moved past my desk, then stopped, saw the book – and stopped to talk with me about it. I was 12. My sister teaches middle school – and now I can understand why the teacher was so … basically stunned … that a 12 year old girl was reading that book.

  3. Fiddlin Bill says:

    Butterfield (I think that was his name) was the guy who installed Nixon’s taping system, and when he was called to testify, quite some time after the hearings had begun, and after much perjury, he revealed that there was such a taping system. Then the focus shifted to getting those tapes. At some point there was the famous 18 minute gap, and lots of fairly humorous theories about how it could have happened (versus the obvious, that important stuff had been erased before the committee could get their hands on the tapes. That’s how I remember it anyways.

    • sheila says:

      Aha yes, thank you. It’s kind of incredible how long the investigation/hearings went on BEFORE the revelation about the taping system came into play. It must have hit like a bomb going off!!

      That was Mike Wallace’s whole take in his interview with Haldeman – saying flat out, “Why didn’t you burn those tapes?”

  4. Fiddlin Bill says:

    In other words, Butterfield confirmed that Nixon and his whole administration (aside from John Dean) was stonewalling, where as before his information that was just a suspicion, and the stonewalling was mostly working, because all the information was kept inside the administration, and all the key players were keeping mum or lying.

  5. Fiddlin Bill says:

    Hey, Youtube has it:

    http://youtu.be/MeQXopJ5U-Q

    The questioner is Thompson, who later ran for President and shills reverse mortgages and other stuff for oldsters.

  6. Fiddlin Bill says:

    It really is an amazing moment. Thompson was really on Nixon’s side, and did not expect this information to appear. Mr. Butterfield was just far enough away from the center of the conspiracy to take his oath seriously. I’d imagine the inner circle were pretty worried about his testimony, but it was a bit of luck that Thompson asked just the right questions. There were so many amazing moments in those hearings. As a North Carolinian myself, Sam Ervin was just remarkable to me. He’d been one of the hard core segregationists, and was almost a living Senator Foghorn Leghorn. But his sense of shock, and his understanding of what was going on, was just incredible–and high patriotism really. It’s tragic that Republicans have mostly just pretended the whole thing was political–the Dems getting them in that sense. They drummed people with more sense out of the party over time, and the election of Reagan was the end of Republican rationality pretty much (IMHO I guess I have to say).

    • sheila says:

      Oh, I don’t know. I know lots of rational people who vote Republican, have conservative views, etc. I’m hardly a liberal myself. And definitely not a party-line kind of person. Parties go through phases of lunacy. Nixon was clearly the height of Paranoid Circle the Wagons politics, at least in terms of how he ran campaigns and how he ran his own administration. And then when they all began caving, and “telling” on each other … it’s like the collapse had no end. It had to be just un-real to watch it all unfold on the nightly news and in the press.

      Mary McCarthy’s book is kind of interesting. Have you read it? Not a major work or anything like that, it’s about 100 pages long. But interesting observations. She attends the hearings. It’s kind of a “here’s what we heard today and here are my impressions” kind of thing. She’s a good writer/thinker so it’s well worth checking out.

      Although, again, you lived through it all!

    • sheila says:

      // As a North Carolinian myself, Sam Ervin was just remarkable to me. He’d been one of the hard core segregationists, and was almost a living Senator Foghorn Leghorn. But his sense of shock, and his understanding of what was going on, was just incredible–and high patriotism really. //

      Really just incredible!

      The whole world changed, the whole game changed.

  7. Fiddlin Bill says:

    I certainly agree that it is dangerous to make judgements about “Republicans” as whole cloth. Of course many sensible people are Republicans, vote Republican, etc. It seems to me that there might be some general truths to be discovered in the fact of Reagan–how to state them, understand them… that’s the hard work of a great historian I guess. To me, Reagan is a break or “revolution” in the sense that he was, truly, an actor playing his greatest role. Nixon, whatever else he was, was a President in the same way Roosevelt or Truman or Kennedy were presidents (or Clinton, or Bush I, or Obama far as I can tell). It seems to me that there was a kind of “decision” after Nixon’s debacle that the public needed to be soothed back into the fold with someone they could “trust.” Reagan filled the bill. By the time we get to Iran-Contra, Reagan is not running the show, he has true deniability, and no accountability. How do we make sense of what is now the truth (as you stated it)–one of the two major parties is driven by a passion for anarchy and destruction, and has no bedrock belief in governance–which is what is supposed to be their raison d’etre. I’m of the belief that there must somewhere be some rational thread–this is a belief only in history as a discipline aiming to understand the flow of events. Would that I’d spent my life becoming a real historian–maybe I could make a contribution. Oh well. Instead I played fiddle well.

    • sheila says:

      // It seems to me that there was a kind of “decision” after Nixon’s debacle that the public needed to be soothed back into the fold with someone they could “trust.” Reagan filled the bill. //

      Interesting. I can see that. And Reagan had appeal to those who were not rank-and-file “I always vote Republican” people. It crossed the party-line. We saw that happen with Obama as well – many of the Republicans I know were horrified at what was going on in their own party, the obsession with gay marriage, the anti-woman shit, the Tea Party nonsense … I mean, I am thinking of some of my uncles, staid upstanding citizens who believe in small government, the true mark of the conservative (something I share) – and they must have been like: “WTF is happening right now?”

      I have great distrust for those who defend the indefensible, because they are protecting their own “side”. Look out. You can argue policy – there are two sides to most policies, and it depends on how you look at things. I totally believe that and I believe in diversity of opinion, and through our checks and balances finding a middle way. But the Culture-War-Christian-evangelical-thrust of the Party alienated so many thoughtful conservatives – because they want a Total Victory over these Internal Enemies – and so the career Republicans were on the defensive in many respects. “No, no, we don’t hate guys, we don’t hate women…” But it’s not a “good look” to be on the defensive like that, especially not in terms of what are now seen as common-sense modern world views. Know what I mean?

      And we need fiddle players too! :)

  8. Fiddlin Bill says:

    Much of the current Republican “position” is surely untenable eventually, just for the reasons you state (among others). In NC the strategy now is to make voting very difficult, particularly for demographics which tend Democratic. We’ve been taken over by the Jesse Helms faction, lock stock and barrel. Clearly the long-term demographic trends in the US do not favor the fearful, small-minded, small-towned white protestant males who’ve never even understood that they lived in a privileged situation. The obliviousness of Romney, my gawd! Not that he was a small-towner–he is an internationalist. I just ordered the McCarthy book, thanks.

    Re getting enough sleep. One must! I’m so happy you’re making that effort.

    Re fiddling, check out Les Blank’s “Sprout Wings and Fly” some time. A wonderful portrait of an Appalachian fiddling master. And I appear briefly in it, as a youthful disciple, towards the end.

    • sheila says:

      Oh wow, I will definitely check out Sprout Wings and Fly!!

      I cosign all of your thoughts about the current Repub situation, especially your comment about privilege. Yes. Untenable. It won’t last. And I think many of them know it, sense it, and that’s why things have gotten so unbelievably ugly. They won’t win – they are on the wrong side of history. It’s weird how clear it is. But they can’t see it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *