There’s something visceral about Super 8 film. Perhaps it’s just the collective memory of countless home movies, but there’s a shaky, grainy, and Zapruder-like truth to the format, an immediacy that 35mm and HD digital can’t match. A very personal medium, it makes director Penny Lane’s new documentary, Our Nixon, all the more riveting.
Culled from more than 500 reels of Super 8 obsessively filmed by former president Richard Nixon’s closest advisors, H.R. Haldeman, John Ehrlichman, and Dwight Chapin (as well as period news reports), Our Nixon is an unmatched private view into a tumultuous time.
Never intended for public viewing, the amateur footage takes us from the heady first days of the administration to the dark pall of Watergate. It’s a wild ride, with plenty of surprise guests (Haile Selassie, Charles de Gaulle, Pope Paul VI, Chairman Mao, and a rogue’s gallery of contemporary American politicians), as well as some solid gold moments of 1970s Americana.
Not surprisingly, we find that the private Nixon is much the same as he is in public: arrogant, awkward, secretive, sweaty, needy, and vaguely simian. But while Haldeman remains the fawning apple-polisher we always knew him to be, Ehrlichman and Chapin come across as thoughtful, penitent and even—gasp!—likeable.
Lane offers no judgment or analysis (other than in her choice of clips), but she doesn’t need to. Hubris provides the context, and Our Nixon plays out like a Greek tragedy. Maybe it’s just schadenfreude, but the result is absolutely compelling and entertaining as all get-out.