At first, the retro, handheld footage looks like something culled from movie night at Don Draper’s apartment. Typically grainy Super 8 images reveal two men clowning around on a business trip abroad. Then you realize that one of the men is notoriously disgraced President Richard M. Nixon and that he and his aides are standing on the Great Wall of China during Nixon’s historic first visit to the People’s Republic in 1972.
The leader seen through the retro prism of affordable consumer cameras is at the heart of Our Nixon, a new documentary by filmmakers Penny Lane and Brian L. Frye. Screened at this year’s SXSW Festival in Austin and making its way around the festival circuit in the coming months, Our Nixon was culled from hours of Super 8 reels shot by three of Nixon’s top aides, H.R. "Bob" Haldeman, John Ehrlichman, and Dwight Chapin, all three of whom would eventually do prison time for their culpability in the Watergate cover-up. Super 8 cameras were cheap, easy to use, and extremely portable, which made them popular with families on vacation, or in this case, three giddy staffers working in the most powerful office in the free world.
After poring over copious hours of footage seized by the FBI during Watergate, most of which had been gathering dust in a storage facility for the past 40 years, Lane and Frye stitched together a narrative out of nothing but archival materials, both audio and visual, to create a documentary that reveals the Nixon Oval Office in a way we’ve never seen nor would have ever imagined.
While the footage isn’t as controversial as, say, Abe Zapruder’s notorious Super 8 footage of the JFK assassination, the Nixon administration’s home movies—shot by men who would later go to prison for their key roles in the Watergate cover-up—are intriguing to today’s viewer because they seem to relate to, and even presage, our contemporary over-share culture. Super 8 was the iPhone camera of the day, so it’s not difficult to see these reels as sort of extended Vines from inside what was arguably the most secretive presidency ever. They also raise questions of privacy and presidential transparency that are as relevant in our post-Wikileaks times as they were in the Daniel Ellsberg era depicted here.
"These guys were the original over-sharers," says Penny Lane, "And of course, there’s an irony to that, because that’s ultimately why they all had to resign and go to prison. But over-sharing is a completely natural impulse when you’re part of this really cool thing [the White House], so they wanted to document it and show people what it was like."While this is their first feature-length documentary, Lane and Frye had both been making short films for a while and shared an abiding interest in what they refer to as primary source material.
"This archival material is from the actual time," says Lane, "so it’s not someone 40 years later telling you what it was like. You can see it for yourself and experience it in real time. As a filmmaker, that’s very interesting to me. It forces you to check your assumptions at the door about what a period was like or what people were thinking at the time. I’m a lover of history, and there’s something you can accomplish with archival material that you just can’t accomplish any other way so, for us, the film had to be all-archival, even the audio; that was kind of the point from the very beginning. We always reserved the right to change our minds and add a voice-over if we had to. "
Lane says that, as working documentarians, she and Frye will often get hot tips about new clips from their mutual friends in the archival film and preservation world. The Nixon footage had been talked about for years.
"We were intrigued by this idea of 'home movies,' " says Lane, "which operate in a range from totally banal to completely adorable. So even without seeing it, we knew there’d be this kind of home-movie tone. Contrast that with what you typically think about when you think of the Nixon presidency or what you know about Watergate, and we just knew it was going to be interesting."
Before they could start the project, Lane and Frye launched a successful Kickstarter, raising enough capital ("in the tens of thousands," says Lane) to make video transfers of the entire Nixon Super 8 archive. Next, they had to figure out what kind of a film they could make. And why.
"It was really open-ended," admits Lane. "We weren’t particularly obsessed with Nixon or that period of American history. What is there left to say about it, you know? We were determined that we weren’t going to use them in the same way that every other filmmaker has always used them, which is exclusively to demonstrate something about Nixon’s criminality or complicity in Watergate. We focused more on how the Nixon tapes demonstrate weird human interactions between Nixon and his people, you know?"
While adding an intimate layer of humanity to the great American tragedy that is the Nixon administration, the filmmakers were adamant that Our Nixon not be seen as an attempt to sanitize history. Rather, by avoiding the use of an external narrator and relying only on news audio and video from the times to act as interstitial exposition between their Super 8 "fragments of history," viewers get to think for themselves.
"Personally, I don’t really love being told what to think," says Lane, "so we tried to be very factual and present every piece of information you might need to be able to follow along. We figured out quickly that we had to use these news clips to contextualize things like, for instance, why going to China was big deal.
Brian Frye, who had already written about the Nixon Super 8s after seeing only a few minutes of them, ["Three Great Filmmakers: Haldeman, Ehrlichman & Chapin, or Nixon’s Home Movies," CINEASTE, Summer 2006], says he was thrilled to finally get a look at the whole archive. The heavy lifting, though, began when he and Lane started to comb through it in search of a key narrative thread. An emergent theme, he and Lane agreed, was Nixon’s betrayal of not only the American people, but of the three Super 8-wielding believers from his inner circle.
"We have three characters who are each very different," says Frye: "Chapin, who is very young and naïve and a bit of an innocent about politics and his role in the presidency. He looks up to Haldeman as being a kind of iconic father figure. Then you’ve got Ehrlichman, who comes into this kind of cynical but sees it as an opportunity to do something important, but in the end really feels that he was thrown under the bus by Nixon and clearly never forgives him. Then there’s Haldeman who falls on his sword before Nixon ever does and never blames Nixon personally—a stoic figure, going down with the ship as it were. They’re all, in a way, like these planets, or stars, who orbit around Nixon without being able to get that close to him. The movie ends up being about the nature of that relationship and the ultimate realization that they have all sacrificed themselves to save Nixon’s presidency. But in the end, he was not able to reciprocate and try and help them."
Frye says that what binds together a lot of their primary source material is technology, noting that the ability to automatically tape-record all conversations in the Oval Office was pretty new technology at the time. Lane adds that the naked emotions revealed on those tapes presented the public with a case of presidential TMI.
"We don’t wanna hear the president of the United States being just a person, you know?" says Lane. "Talking drunk on the phone at night when he’s depressed, and being petty, venal, homophobic, or confused. It bothers me."
Frye says that he and Lane felt that the retro look of the Super 8 made them both highly conscious of the textures of the material and getting the look right.
"Because the resolution was so low in the TV material," says Frye, "and to set it apart from the higher-resolution Super 8 films, we made the decision to take all of the TV footage and present it in black-and-white, so there would be a kind of aesthetic consistency to the news footage so that people could visually recognize what kind of material they were looking at. There was just a lot of visual information, as well as textual and audio information."
"It was really fun for my online editor," adds Lane, laughing. "He said everybody was always coming asking him to make their HD video look like Super 8. Brian and I both liked the kind of nostalgia that’s implicit in the Super 8 medium as well as other antiquated technologies, like old VHS tapes and crappy-looking Beta clips."
Ironically, says Frye, we may never see self-documented archives like the Nixon Super 8s from any presidency again. After Nixon, congress and the private lawyers of subsequent administrations debated the nature of public and private ownership of such materials. That climate has created an air of self-consciousness affecting everything from White House emails to Barack Obama’s personal Blackberry, taken from him on his first day as president.
"Prior to the Nixon presidency," says Frye, "the standard practice had been to assume that any papers or materials produced by the president or any member of the president’s staff in the White House were treated as the personal property of that president. That changed after Watergate. Now, as you can imagine, knowing that the materials will eventually go into the public record alters what they do and don’t record and or choose to preserve."
[Super 8 film stills courtesy of Dipper Films | Great Wall Image: Richard Nixon Foundation | Lane and Frye Headshot Photo by Les Stone]