Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Mar 14, 2013 2:18 am 
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Downfall of Nixon's closest aides retold with their own Super 8 footage as window dressing

"As President Richard Nixon tape-recorded his conversations for posterity, so his devoted aides—H.R. Haldeman, John Ehrlichman, and Dwight Chapin—shot hundreds of rolls of Super-8 film documenting the presidency. Filmmakers Penny Lane and Brian L. Frye have edited this footage—virtually unseen since the FBI seized it during the Watergate investigation—and interwoven it with period news footage and pop culture, excerpts from the Nixon tapes, and contemporary interviews. OUR NIXON offers an unprecedented, insider’s view of an American presidency, chronicling watershed events including the Apollo moon landing and the path-breaking trip to China, as well as more intimate glimpses of Nixon in times of glory and disgrace. "

Such is the festival blurb for Penny Nixon's new documentary film about the Nixon Presidency. But like most festival blurbs, it is advertising, and its claims of an unprecedented insider's view are titillating, but quite spurious. Land and Frye have made a snappy new run-through of this story, with a focus on Nixon's closest aides Haleman, Erlichman, and Chapin, whose Super 8 films add a bright cheery literally square note to the old story of naivete, duplicity, and downfall. There is indeed something terminally naive as well as dangerously loyal about this little band, and the old format with its bright colors is a good way of evoking this aspect of the Nixon era. Land and Frye have created a smooth, entertaining package. But do not come to this film thinking there is anything "unprecedented" or new about the information it presents. All the footage, though indeed in a vault for 40 years, had come to reside in the National Archives, but the filmmakers found what the Archives had on view was a copied and deteriorated version. They where able to obtained original (and therefor much sharper) copies of the Super 8 footage when Haldeman's estate donated it to the Nixon Library and they offered to make high quality digital copies of it at their own expense. The Nixon Library lacked the funds to do so!

But the first thing you need to know, and the big letdown if you're looking for some kind of intimate record, is that all these aides' Super 8 films are without sound. Besides this they're very conventional, safe, formal footage, almost like a tourist's of the White House and its denizens at work and play, -- not a depiction of any kind of secret hitherto unrevealed Nixon insiders' world. The filmmakers had to find separate audio and verbal material to bind the Super 9 footage together from other sources, and they are public ones. Some of this material is is narration made for the film. Much of it consists of strategically inserted archival interviews from television as well as news reports by Walter Cronkite and other leading media figures of the period, such as Dan Rather, Barbara Walters, Mike Wallace, Phil Donahue, and Daniel Schorr. The biggest frissons come from phone or office tapes of dialogue between Nixon and one of the three aides, Haldeman, Erlichman or Chapin. "Never mind the Times," Nixon is heard saying, for instance, "let's get the prick who gave them the information," meaning Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers. And so on. Subtitles for these slightly fuzzy exchanges are provided in the middle of Whilte House views from the Super 8 tapes. But the Super 8 is just bland, colorful background for these little shockers. The Super 8 material winds up not being that important. It just provides color -- window dressing -- and an initial sense of the three aides' naivete when the started out in the White house. The revealing White House sound tapes, if not always heard in these particular excepts or this context, have long been in the public domain.

In the end this is the story of the disintegration of the worlds of Haldeman, Erlichman, and Chapin, along with a very quick Nixon Presidency for Dummies -- Vietnam, China, Watergate, not much more. Only Chapin is now living. Interviews post-jail time with Haldeman and Erlichman and more recently with Chapin fill us in on how they recreated themselves in writing, real estate, and business. "Our Nixon" is a bit of a misnomer. "Their Nixon," maybe. But this film, for all its very well assembled visuals, doesn't provide material of the complexity you can get from books or articles.

Penny Lane's Our Nixon, 85 mins., was in part funded from a grant from the Jerome Foundation. IMDb information is incomplete, but it apparently debuted at the Austin SXSW (South by Southwest) Festival. It was screened for this review as part of the MoMA-Film Society of Lincoln Center series, New Directors/New Films, running from March 20-31 in 2013. It was scheduled as the closing night film. No doubt the promise of hitherto unseen private footage and a secret intimate Nixon was well calculated to sell extra festival tickets and draw a lively crowd for ND/NF's final night. There were chortles and laughter at certain howlers from the insider crew even at the Press and Industry screening and no doubt there will be more of these in a packed festival hall.

US theatrical release of Our Nixon opens in NYC at IFC Center Aug, 30, 2013. (Metaciritc rating 72% showed general critical approval. But some reviews, such as in THE DISSOLVE (Nathan Rabin), tell the truth: "audiences hoping for revelatory, intimate footage of Nixon . . . will be sorely disappointed. They aren’t those kind of home movies."

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