Our Nixon

****

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"A fascinating watch."

Few US presidents have featured in more films than Richard Nixon. From documentaries like Nixon's The One: The '68 Election and the semi-documentary Frost/Nixon to features as diverse as The Butler, J. Edgar, Forrest Gump and Watchmen, he's a character who continues to fascinate yet we almost always see him in the same way: sly, conniving, up to no good. Penny Lane's new documentary does something quite different by presenting a portrait of the president as his friends and aides saw him. It's a fascinating watch.

This is Nixon as he has rarely been seen. In the early years, before things started to fall apart, we see him as relaxed, lighthearted, genuinely witty and easy to like. His whole bearing is different from the familiar caricature, his face open and smiling. The archive footage that makes up most of the film comes from Dwight Chapin, John Ehrlichmann and HR Haldeman. It's Super 8, connoting nostalgia and family fun. We see birds and squirrels in a garden, glimpsed through what might be Whitehouse windows. We see Nixon dancing with his daughter on her wedding day. A recorded telephone call gives us access to his first reaction to the voice-activated tape recorder that would get him into so much trouble. Sitting quietly, looking at it, he hasn't ventured to try using it, not understanding why it say 'off'.

Copy picture

It's a sweet depiction, drawing the viewer in despite the weight of history. Even when Nixon rants about the dangers of homosexuality he seems daft rather than malicious (it's all a Communist plot to destroy the establishment by introducing a competing value system, apparently). His aides recall his anxious desire to end the war in Vietnam, positioning him as a troubled would-be hero rather than the villain the anti-war protestors took him for. Yet there's no hiding the darkness here. The paranoia that undermines the structures of the office. The increasingly hopeless denial of obvious corruption. The scapegoating, and the danger apparent in Nixon's ability to believe his own lies.

How you relate to this film may well depend a lot on your age. I was just a baby when Nixon resigned and I have always been puzzled as to why people voted for him in the first place. This is a missing piece of that puzzle. For those who lived through the whole story as adults, there will be less to gain, but it's still a rare and valuable glimpse of the man behind the monster, and it's also an engaging, entertaining tale.

Reviewed on: 09 Nov 2013
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Our Nixon packshot
Super-8 film shot by Nixon's aides documenting the presidency.


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