Our Nixon is a documentary about Richard Nixon’s time as President, which livens up the retreading of a well-known controversy (Watergate) with some never before seen Super-8 footage shot, amongst others, by then Chief of Staff H. R. “Bob” Haldeman, Assistant to the President John D. Ehrlichman and Deputy Assistant to the President Dwight Chapin, all three imprisoned for their role in the Watergate cover-up.
The film’s intention seems to be to present Nixon as we’ve never seen him before, through the medium of some intimate and affectionate Super-8 footage, which ought to humanise a man so often demonised. The film begins with the 1969 inauguration and ends with the 1974 resignation and runs through a story that we should all be familiar with. However, it is unclear where the film ultimately stands, with its cheeky use of pop tunes of the day undercutting any serious critique and its interest in only the surface of the story making for a film that says remarkably little. Nixon was a complicated man, but some people liked him – who knew?
Despite a purported focus on newly released Super-8 found footage, Our Nixon really uses a lot of recordings from the Nixon Oval Office to fill in the blanks. The film is, hence, less a look at the human Nixon and more just another retelling of the Watergate scandal. The first half of the film, the pre-Watergate section, is very unclear in terms of where it stands on Nixon. It is unclear whether or not what we are watching is an apologia for Nixon – with the pop music (often pro-Nixon pieces) and the focus on foreign policy successes. We see him ending the Vietnam War and being the first President to visit the Republic of China. However, there is no mention of Nixon and Kissinger intentionally delaying the Paris Peace Agreement in order to bombard Vietnam further and to give them time to present their version of the agreement to the American people. Nor does the film have any mention whatsoever of the invasion and merciless bombing of Cambodia, which continued after the Paris Peace Agreement and which lead directly to the deaths of between 600,000 and 700,000 people (by some estimates) and to the subsequent rise of Pol Pot. Nor does the film mention Nixon’s continuance of covert operations against Cuba or his involvement in the military coup in Chile which installed Pinochet and lead to 3,000 Chileans either killed or disappeared. When the film addresses the war protestors, it merely has Dwight Chapin saying that, “the demonstrators prolonged the war. They didn’t help us get out, they made it worse” – a ridiculous assertion. If a man is defined by his actions, then a documentary trying to uncover the man behind the controversy need look honestly at the actions.
It is not until late in the film, with a recorded rant by Nixon in which he is viciously homophobic after seeing a show on public television that appeared to “promote homosexuality”, that we see a dark side to Nixon. After this, Our Nixon takes us through Watergate, the cover-up and the resignation. Where before an apparently intimate vision of Nixon had appeared, we now see the conflicted, unknowable Nixon again, the one that we are all used to seeing. But, that Nixon never went away, since, although the documentary can ignore Nixon’s crimes, those who know about them cannot. And since the documentary ultimately gives up on its dishonest attempt to humanise Nixon, the new ground that it breaks is nil.
Our Nixon ends up resembling a bad political autobiography, wherein hindsight battles with historically discredited past choices in a self-serving attempt to justify a legacy. Awkward facts are dodged in order to re-emphasise the achievements, which are often taken out of context and away from more ulterior motives. Our Nixon ultimately decides that it is not a tribute (the final pop song is far from pro-Nixon), but it is an apologia, because it lets Nixon off the hook. Aside from that, it is unoriginal, without any new insights into Nixon the man and only falsely devoted to Super-8 found footage – a gimmick that the documentary is unable or unwilling to fully develop. What makes it seem like even more of a pointless exercise is the fact that the filmmakers seem so ambivalent about Nixon themselves or, at least, unable to present their opinions coherently through the found footage that they have chosen for their medium.