Nixon Was a Tricky Dick: Our Nixon 

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Our Nixon
Directed by Penny Lane

Coherently put together but baffling in intent, this ordinary found-footage chronicle has had a kid-gloved reception, suggesting critics are bowled over by clips of famous people and the fact of history. The hook is an underused trove of Super 8 home movies by convicted Nixon aides, deployed to rudimentary humanizing ends (what’s remarkable is how unremarkable they can be!). Yet the majority of its revelatory footage comes from television clips and previously available audio excerpts while the historical account isn't news to anyone with a passing familiarity with the period.

As if to say, “Lighten up, everybody!,” director Penny Lane and producer Brian Frye proceed from the at-best-absurd premise that H.R. Haldeman, John Ehrlichman, and Dwight Chapin were simply hard-working young guys who got caught up in some bad business, and that Watergate and its consequences were, in terms of Nixon’s record, anomalous and blown out of proportion. The tag-along home movies serve to suggest the bloom of golly-gee zeal and innocence, reinforced by clips of later interviews with the former aides that are treated without skepticism; the extent of Haldeman and Ehrlichman’s actions, during or before the scandal, is downplayed through a selectively concise narrative. (Perhaps only a Nixon insider would protest Our Nixon as short-changing the executive—as indeed the still-living Chapin has.) Despite the title's reference to Hans-Jürgen Syberberg’s radical work Our Hitler, and despite the pretension to portraying a didn’t-know-what-hit-them moment, Our Nixon is another example of the insidious blind eye of celebrity voyeurism, peering into the ever-tantalizing inner sanctum of the White House.

Lane and her editors do subtly play with the notion of the public’s relationship with the president, especially through the use of hokey pop songs about loosey-goosey crushes, and showcase some tense moments, albeit of the sort it would be hard for any movie about this period to avoid. (Daniel Ellsberg and big-name TV interviewers are present to offer a reality check, though these sometimes come across in the editing as show trials.) Yet the filmmakers problematically present as novel and insightful what was in fact standard operating procedure for this press-attacking, image-burnishing president—namely, the (increasingly aggrieved) insistence of all-American integrity in the face of repeated evidence to the contrary. Glimpses of a meeting between Nixon and Romanian dictator Ceausescu only recall Andrei Ujica’s far more creative and genuinely reflective use of executive found footage in The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu, in which the party line is recognized as such.

Opens August 30 at IFC Center

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