The coup that led to the remarkable, unusual documentary Our Nixon must have spelled nirvana for the gifted director Penny Lane. For her premiere feature-length work, Lane somehow managed to obtain access to a gold mine: thousands of hours of Super-8 material shot by Richard M. Nixon's infamous aides (and Watergate accomplices) John Ehrlichman, H.R. Haldeman, and Dwight Chapin -- who spent several years obsessively capturing everything from White House Easter-egg hunts to Tricia Nixon's wedding on their personal cameras. The filmmaker then selectively edited the found footage together with key news clips and presidential addresses of the era, and laced atop all of it blistering passages from White House audio diaries and recorded phone conversations between Nixon and his acolytes.
On an immediate level, the documentary lacks an overt message or theme; instead, Lane relies to an unusual degree on our deductive behavioral reading and lets us draw our own conclusions. That constitutes the motion picture's bravest coup: We can take any one of hundreds of observations away from the "inside" interactions that we observe and hear, some of which we may have been able to infer before, but rarely on such striking and potent levels. Some of the most pronounced that came across for this viewer: the fear, paranoia, and prejudice that consistently pervaded Nixon's voice and private conversations (even pre-Watergate); the president's insistence on rehearsing, to an eerie degree, speeches to the American public; and Ehrlichman & co.'s recollections of the late '60s, when they arrived in the White House vis-à-vis Nixon as the marionette holders of the GOP, as they seemed almost high on infinite possibility. This gives the movie some of its most haunting impressions. In later years, the Reagan administration drew harsh criticism from some corners for the vacuum that existed at the center of the Oval Office, but we realize from watching this film that Nixon was far more dangerous: He courted men who were almost oblivious to the sort of power and responsibility that they wielded, content to simply toy around with different options, impervious to the public consequences.
On a broader level, the motion picture exudes a subtly encroaching emotional power that grows out of the nexus between its two perspectives. In the private images of the aides' 8mm footage, we step into the shoes of three of the most controversial figures of their era. We witness the vicissitudes of their lives outside of the public eye, see the banal details of D.C. life in the late '60s and early '70s, and experience their day-to-day routines in a manner that strikes one as unprecedented -- and that breaks through long-standing public vilification to touch on a level of empathy that might have seemed foolish at the time, but feels courageous and visionary now. Meanwhile, on another level and courtesy of the news footage, Lane compresses several years of pivotal, emotionally tumultuous Americana into an 84-minute time slot. This particular material gives heightened emotional contours to a now notorious period of our national history, and in a manner that feels fresh for a documentary. What grows out of the tension between the public and private spheres here is something revelatory: We begin to experience Vietnam-era history on dual levels as a kind of contemporary, cautionary myth. The overall dramatic arc is a gradual one -- from sunny (if illusory) optimism to the bleak despair accompanying the loss of apparent innocence and the full emergence of oligarchic corruption. Accordingly, Lane's visuals unceremoniously darken over the course of the movie, from bright and vernal to bleak and gray, with a heavier reliance on black-and-white in the concluding sequences.
This is an ambitious and challenging sociohistorical chronicle that weaves a haunting ambience. It's all the more noteworthy given the fact that Lane is commenting with uncanny depth of insight on an era prior to her own.