While the president attempts to extract the country out of a long and morally corrupt crusade on a distant continent, a quixotic former military analyst leaks a trove of classified documents revealing the embarrassing details of America’s involvement. The administration, furious at the airing of its dirty laundry, hurls accusations of espionage and attempts to prosecute both the leaker and the newspapers running the leaks. It all sounds mundanely familiar, except they year here is 1971, Richard Nixon is president, and it’s not Wikileaks we’re talking about here but the Pentagon Papers. Apparently, some things never change.
That the Pentagon Papers was just one of two landmark scandals of Nixon’s presidency speaks to the harsh time our 37th POTUS had during his brief tenure. And all that White House drama has provided rich and fertile fodder for the silver screen over the years. It's birthed Frost/Nixon, All The President’s Men, Nixon, Dick, The Assassination of Richard Nixon, and more documentaries than even a Tricky Dick-ophile could stomach.
It’s refreshing then that Penny Lane’s beautifully meditative Our Nixon offers something different than its predecessors. For one, Our Nixon is composed exclusively of archived footage—sourced primarily from 500 reels of never-before-seen amateur Super 8 home movies by three of Nixon’s closest associates. There’s no Ken Burns effect here or tired shots of old photos; no amber-voiced narrator—in fact, no narrator at all. Our Nixon isn’t really about Richard Nixon at all. Instead, it’s the young, fervid, and idealistic cabinet members behind the dinky cameras—H.R. Halderman, John Ehrlichman and Dwight Chapin—who come into focus here. As they orbit Nixon stumbling towards disaster, they manage to capture something genuine in each others’ faces and the faces of the administration's many earnest supporters: a vision of great hope and confidence in Richard Nixon. In hindsight it’s hard to fathom their admiration for the only president in our country’s history ever to resign. But like an expert guide, Lane manages to bring us to the precipice of comprehension, and the view is as compelling as it is eerily captivating.
Earlier this month I had a chance to speak with Penny Lane over the phone.
How did this project land on your desk? My co-producer Brian L. Frye and I have both made a lot of films over the years and worked with a lot of archival and found footage—essentially amateur film, like home movies. We have a lot of friends in that world and it came to Brian’s attention that there were 26 hours of Super 8 home movies filmed by Richard Nixon’s top aides and that they were just sitting in the national archive. They weren’t being suppressed; they had just been ignored and forgotten for a very long time. We were both just so intrigued by that that we invested a almost $20,000 to make the first ever video transfers of them. We had a hunch that there was something about the combination of the naïveté, the nostalgia, and the sweetness of Kodachrome Super 8 images from 1970 and everything else we know about the Nixon Presidency that there would be a really interesting tension.
You invested $20,000—weren’t you afraid these home movies would be just that? Inane footage of people’s kids finger-painting? They kind of are inane—that’s what home movies are. They operate on a scale of boring to adorable. There’s not a lot of complexity to a home movie image and we knew that going into it. We’d both looked at many hundreds of hours of home movies in our lives and had a pretty good idea of what they were going to look like: no tripods, poorly shot, a lot of zooming in and zooming out. We didn’t expect the home movies themselves to convey much more than a sense of nostalgia, faithfulness, and happiness. We knew that we would be bringing to the home movies the whole sweep of history; we would be bringing things that would give context and help understand them in different ways.
What were you most surprised by in these films? I didn’t expect how boyishly excited everyone was. There was a youthfulness, a vigor, an enthusiasm, a joyfulness, and a playfulness. It’s sort of banal but seeing the faces of all these people who supported Nixon and loved this president and were excited about him. Not realizing it, I started to imagine that no one ever liked Nixon; that everybody in 1969 was burning their draft cards and growing their hair out. But seeing the faces of what Nixon called his “Silent Majority” was both emotionally affecting and intellectually stimulating because it helped enrich my understanding of what the country was like at that point in time.
There’s also a sense of playfulness to the film—from the music, to the credits. Did you think the material needed some levity? There were many, many aesthetic choices that were deliberately made because we knew that people would expect a historical documentary to be A, B, C, and we just didn’t do those things. For instance, we don’t have any still images. It’s like a requirement that if you have a historical documentary, you have to have black and white photos that you pan over. And there’s another requirement that you have a narrator that explains everything to you. And we were like, No, we’re not going to do that. That was part of it – the desire to do something different. And we also wanted to honor the spirit of the home movies themselves, which were goofy, and sweet, and nostalgic. Some of what we were trying to do was to capture and enhance the qualities that were already in the home movies: the kitschiness, the squareness and that happy nostalgia.
Did your opinion of Nixon change in the process of making the film? With every step of the project, I was a little bit more invested in his existence as a human being and less invested in his stereotype caricature as a historical villain. He did very bad things, and I don’t want to go down a path to say that he didn’t—that’s not my goal. But listening to thousands of hours of private conversation, the overwhelming effect I got was, Oh my god, this is just a person--the president of the United States is a person. And sometime she’s confused, or tired, or angry, or venal, or petty, just like everyone else. For me, that was a small revelation. He forced us to see that the president is not better than the rest of us; that just because someone has that much power and privilege doesn’t mean that they’re perfect. At all. I think that’s very, very terrifying. I think that’s really scary.
While you were making the film, did you start drawing parallels between President Obama’s administration and Nixon’s? It’s not a film that’s directly comparing this president to a past one, but I do think that that was the kind of thing that we wanted people to ask themselves: How unique was this presidency? We have a tendency to assume that everything about the Nixon presidency was an aberration. That he was a particularly psychotic president. He may have been, it’s very possible that he was, but I don’t know. For me, looking at the fact that the Obama administration has this war against leakers that makes Nixon look like a pathetic joke—it poses an interesting question. It shows that there a lot of different ways to think about that presidency and the least interesting way is to think that everything about it was an aberration and that it has nothing to do with any other presidency. Every president deals with some of the same issues. Obama inherited Afghanistan and Iraq just like Nixon inherited Vietnam.
Now that everything’s digital, will film archives even exist in the future? I don’t know what the home movie archives of the future will look like. We don’t have reels of film in boxes that some future historian can find. Are there going to be hard drives with movie files on them? I can’t imagine what Our Obama would be in 40 years. There’s not going to be any physical artifacts, so what will there be? Will there be anything? I hope so. I don’t have any physical photographs, do you? I have a Facebook account; I have an Instagram account.
Our Nixon opens at New York's IFC Center today and will be showing in select cities and in festivals through the end of the year. Check out the schedule here.