Director: Penny Lane
3 (out of 5) Globes
As the far right has consumed the Republican party, a curious development has occurred: Richard Nixon, bogeyman of the GOP, has been reassessed as a closet sort-of liberal. A pro-big government type who installed more regulations than anyone since FDR, our 37th president favored the Clean Air Act and affirmative action, gave us the EPA and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and proposed a far more radical health care program than the embattled “Obamacare.” And yet, he was still Richard Nixon. Those were the days.
“Our Nixon,” a compilation film made of newly released archival footage and sound recordings, doesn’t go as far into the brink as this. It’s not a complete overhauling of the public image of him as a comic book (or “Futurama”) villain, pilloried even by his own party. Alternately dry and bouncy, it offers an alternately sarcastic and weirdly human portrayal of its subject. One second it’s playing jokey music or a clip where a member of a hilariously stodgy chorus group prefaces their presidential performance with an impassioned call for him to be less racist. The other he’s coming off as just a guy doing the toughest job in the world.
He’s not sympathetic, really, or close to it, and the film naturally spends its final half hour immersed in Watergrate miscellany. If anything it makes him seem more complex — more boring, if also more evil than we imagined. A long audio clip, played over de-classified 8mm footage of the White House lawn (many of the clips were shot by H.R. Haldeman, an apparently avid home filmmaker), has Nixon railing against homosexuals. But most are droney and amusingly dull back-and-forths, grumblings between people in well over their heads, just living day to day.
Pieced together by the so-named Penny Lane, “Our Nixon” lacks, by design, a very strong editorial perspective. It’s no “Millhouse,” Emile de Antonio’s 1971 takedown of the presidency mid-stride using only television footage and speeches. At the same time, it (mostly) sticks to that film’s rigid structure: There are no contemporary talking heads, little context for what we’re seeing beyond the occasional date stamp. It could use a touch more of a personalized take and a bit more ambition. (It runs a clean 84 minutes.) But turning one of the century’s most hated rulers into a vaguely fatigued schmuck is no small feat.