Inside the Nixon White House, three of the former-US president’s most senior aides were enthusiastic amateur filmmakers. Between them, they managed to amass over 500 reels of Super 8 footage detailing everything from state visits to staff garden parties. Having been seized by the FBI during the investigations into the Watergate scandal, those videos are now freely available and provide the primary source for Penny Lane’s award-winning montage documentary, Our Nixon (2013). Playing this week at the Institute of Contemporary Art, the film presents an intimate portrait of the life of the “Tricky Dicky” administration.
When Richard Nixon was elected in 1969, he brought with him into the West Wing a trio of young, energised and devoted advisors from his Presidential campaign; H.R. Halderman, John Ehrlichman, and Dwight Chapin. These three filled the respective roles of White House Chief of Staff, Chief Domestic Advisor, and Special Assistant whilst also supplying a wealth of material for this retrospective cinematic collage. Their home movies are combined with old newsreels, television interviews with the men, and snippets from the infamous Oval Office recordings. Our Nixon paints a unique picture of their time in government whilst offering a few riveting flashes of the man himself. This is by no means a dry, straight history lesson, however.
Those without a general knowledge of his premiership, and a vague grasp of Watergate, might want to read up beforehand as it is not intended as an exhaustive analysis of the President or his policies. Instead, it is a much more personal account of the period from three men personally involved. It does offer keen insights through audio extracts but does not, nor attempt to, cut through the enigma to present some supposed conclusive study of Nixon; preferring to continue building his image from a fresh new angle. There are some fascinating glimpses at the machinations within the administration and POTUS’ paranoia comes across quite potently in particular moments.
Private discussions of the famously leaked Pentagon Papers (and perpetrator Daniel Ellsberg) are included, as is one revealing exchange in which homosexuality is categorically identified as a destroyer of civilised society. It also becomes apparent that certain people were kept out of particular loops in a government where knowledge was, undoubtedly, power. That it doesn’t purport to be definitive on its subject works in Our Nixon’s favour, allowing the filmmakers to conjure up something quite distinct – though not exhaustive. Rather than a typical by-the-numbers doc, it gives an unconventional slant on an endlessly intriguing figure.
Our Nixon screens as part of the DocHouse strand at London’s ICA on 19 September, 2013. For more info, visit dochouse.org.