This article originally appeared on CultureCraver.com.
On August 8, 1974, after two years of bitter public debate over the Watergate scandal, Richard Nixon announced on television that he would resign. And despite the television specials, best-selling books, and films that followed that national moment, secrets and abstractions continued to obscure parts of the story.
This weekend, “Our Nixon” opens in theaters. It’s a peculiar sort of documentary, offering a whole new perspective on Nixon. Rather than dissecting the facts, the film attempts to give audiences a sense of what that White House felt like — and who the people who would mastermind the scandal were.
This approach of looking at the personal side of public figures and public scandal makes sense. It’s what Ted Widmer, the former White House speechwriter for Bill Clinton, did when he made historical figures, from Patrick Henry to Frederick Douglass, seem thoroughly modern and relatable in revisiting their greatest speeches in his 2006 book. Widmer’s lesson — that history is understood best when it’s personal — is taken to heart by the creators of Our Nixon.
This focus on the personal and a healthy sense of curiosity created “Our Nixon.”
Co-producer Brian L. Frye found out that there were never before seen Super 8 home videos shot by H.R. Haldeman, John Ehrlichman and Dwight Chapin recovered by the FBI during the Watergate investigation. He and the film’s director and co-producer, Penny Lane, spent $18,000 to make copies of the footage. Frye and Lane then sat down to see what life was like for the three men who would become the White House’s most notorious staffers. Surprisingly, it was rather normal and unpresumptuous.
“My first reaction was, ‘Oh wow, the colors are really beautiful.’ I also realized immediately that the three men making these little movies, each one is smiling into the camera. You realize these are humans,” Lane said in an interview for Culture Craver.
Earlier depictions of Haldeman, Erlichman, and Chapin tended to show stoic, hard, black and white politicos. Lane and Frye collaged together archived footage that shows colorful, light-hearted vignettes of three men and their boss. The film includes film from official trips overseas, trips to what appears to be Camp David, and even the first dance of Patricia Nixon on her wedding day. Despite our memory of Nixon, these images are something more resonant of a Richie Cunningham approach to D.C. They also incorporated other footage — such as interviews with Barbara Walters and Phil Donahue.
One of the first characters we meet in the film is Haldeman, who had come to the Nixon administration from advertising. He looks like someone who would have worked for the fictional Don Draper — a resigned, creative type, surrounded by frivolous frat boys. Perhaps our love for the Mad Men era allows us to feel sympathy for Haldeman, who is depicted as both the chief henchman and the chief fall-boy of Watergate.
Next, we meet Erlichman. He is not the hardened and jaded figure he would become in the fallout of the scandal.
“With Erlichman, you see he is extremely smart, artistic and reflective,” Lane said, “But Haldeman was a tricky character who was really obsessed with accuracy and the president. You grow to love his sense of loyalty in watching these sequences.”
The filmmaker was not familiar with Chapin before she started working on “Our Nixon.” She said what struck her was how he seemed like a genuinely nice guy.
With all of the questions lingering around the Nixon years, “Our Nixon” begins to fill in some holes and complete the story. Gray figures in a scandal become men with names and personalities and feelings of incompletion.
But the documentary flows through the happy days and the gravitas of the White House, noting things like just how much of a womanizer Henry Kissinger really was.
As you begin to fill up on images and conversation that depict the Nixon staff as kids at camp, the point that makes it all matter reveals itself: we hear documentation of Nixon’s burgeoning fascination with the idea of surveillance and we get a glimpse of the political future, which is obviously not at all like summer camp. I think Nixon’s notes, his obsession, and his aloofness make the film worthwhile.
Spoiler alert: Nixon asks Haldeman to do some more espionage for him after the press and courts have already stripped Haldeman of any chance of a future. To this, Haldman, unaffectedly replies that he does not think it’s a good idea.
The film does not close the case on Watergate, but it adds some depth to the story. It brings in the personal.
Lane comes from a studio art perspective and has never created a political film. Perhaps it is perfect that someone removed from the political junkie world gave us a peephole through which we can better revisit and better understand this moment in our political history. In a year of film marked by a substantive amount of historical genres, this is a documentary that will offer the “ooos” and “ahs” of revisiting the moment.
“Our Nixon” is now playing at the IFC Center