AFI Docs Review: “Our Nixon”

Archival footage in Penny Lane’s debut film offers new insight into a complex and fascinating leader.

By: Dori Zweig

Much has been said about the 37th President of the United States, but in her debut documentary feature, Our Nixon, artist and filmmaker Penny Lane takes a fresh look at a familiar figure through a huge trove of archival footage: more than 500 reels of home movies chronicling Richard Nixon’s presidency from 1969 to 1973. During their tenure at the White House, Nixon’s key staff members, H.R. Haldeman, John Ehrlichman, and Dwight Chapin, took their Super 8 cameras wherever they could, hoping to capture some pivotal moment in American history, or just something to show their grandchildren. They weren’t disappointed.

The film begins with Nixon’s inauguration in 1969: The American people are hopeful, and Nixon delivers a fine address, promising the usual goals of world peace and mutual understanding. The found footage slowly offers insight into his relationships with his right-hand men, and the dynamic is one of professionalism but also of true friendship—it’s clear Haldeman, Ehrlichman, and Chapin respect Nixon, and vice versa.

Other milestones are documented in Nixon’s first term, including the moon landing in July 1969, his daughter’s wedding, the annual Easter egg hunt, and important moments in the Vietnam War. The events aren’t emphasized so much as used as reference points in the timeline of Nixon’s presidency. There’s no narration during the film, although every so often the clips are interspersed with interviews with Chapin or Haldeman from the ’80s and ’90s, offering their interpretation of events.

Some of the most compelling moments in Our Nixon are surprising. Haldeman loved to film hummingbirds, and the camera often focuses on one for several minutes while we hear a phone conversation between Nixon and another staffer in the background. It humanizes Nixon to hear him have normal, sincere conversations in this manner. But what makes the film great is its slow progression toward Watergate, told through found footage along with news clips, photographs, and leaked phone conversations. Haldeman’s pain and disappointment in his boss is apparent, alongside Chapin and Erlichman’s embarrassment. The tone of the realizations, contrasted with the typically happy feel of the home movie footage, is stark. As events progress, lives are destroyed, friendships ruined, and careers ended.

Lane tells her story without editorializing, leaving viewers to make their own assumptions about Nixon and Watergate. The film ends with an emotional phone conversation between Nixon and Haldeman, where the President repeats over and over again: “I love you. You’re like my brother.”

By tracking an unconventional path through several crucial years of American history, Our Nixon offers new insight into a complex and fascinating figure.

Playing June 22, 12:15 PM, at the National Archives, and June 23, 5 PM, at the National Portrait Gallery.