Runs Fri., Sept. 27–Thurs., Oct. 3 at Grand Illusion. Not rated. 84 minutes.
I come from a family of rabid Nixon haters. With my grandfather I watched what seemed like all the Watergate hearings on TV. (If childhood memory serves, he bought a new color set for that express purpose, because black-and-white wasn’t good enough for his contempt.) So while I wanted to like this found-footage archival mashup of Super-8 home movies made by Richard Nixon’s White House staffers, maybe I know too much about that era of American politics. To me, the stories of H.R. Haldeman, John Ehrlichman, and Dwight Chapin are relatively familiar, but director Penny Lane has to interpolate lots of old TV broadcasts and after-the-fact interviews to explain to millennials why her archival footage is so wonderful.
And it is: Here is the cheerful, playful, colorful, and dare I say Nixonian optimism of the first term. Nixon crushed Humphery in ’68, and his staffers had every reason to gloat. (It’s worth remembering that, were it not for Watergate, Republicans would’ve held the White House for 20 consecutive years; Carter was the historical aberration.) Still, Lane shrewdly overlays Nixon’s secret audio recordings—unknown to Haldeman and company—to give ominous context to their happy backstage scenes. Haldeman, then in his early 30s, was an acutely image-conscious ad man; and what we now call political stagecraft was being perfected by the Republicans of that era (Roger Ailes prominent among them). For that reason, the home movies now read like camera gaffes and sly visual commentary—Walter Cronkite framed upside down, horse shit at the Vatican, a camera zoom out the White House window to a waiting pack of reporters who smell blood after Watergate. But of course it’s Lane, with benefit of hindsight, who has control of the editing.
In one priceless bit, after Nixon praises the Ray Conniff Singers at a White House concert (“If the music is square, it’s because I like it square”), a brave young woman performer holds up a Vietnam War protest sign and denounces the president. His minions didn’t realize it, but they were filming the future.