Next year marks the 40th anniversary of the culmination of the Watergate scandal, which ended in the summer of 1974 when Richard Nixon defiantly boarded a helicopter on the White House lawn and left his presidency — and the American public’s trust in their government — smoldering on the ground below.
Nixon died in 1994 — he would have turned 100 this year — but his legacy remains a living, breathing entity. The latest entry in Nixonography is the documentary Our Nixon, which premieres tonight at 9 on CNN and will re-air on Sunday night at 9, and again on August 10.
So much ink has been spilled (and film spooled) about Nixon it’s hard to imagine that there’s anything new to be discovered. But that’s where Our Nixon director Penny Lane has a potential ace up her sleeve. The new documentary draws heavily on newly unearthed home movies shot on Super 8 cameras by H.R. Haldeman, John Ehrlichman and Dwight Chapin, three key members of the Nixon administration, all of whom served time in prison for their roles in the Watergate cover-up.
The grainy footage ranges from cool, behind-the-curtain stuff from Nixon’s historic China visit to quotidian scenes from children’s birthday parties and family gatherings. Though soundless, the footage — which until recently been held in the National Archives as part of the Watergate investigation — does lend a freshness to the whole endeavor. Seeing the home movie footage transforms history into something stunningly immediate. It’s like being a fly on the wall of a time machine, whisked back to the early years of the Nixon White House.
After a bit, though, it becomes clear that all this new footage, as visually fascinating as it may be, isn’t really adding any new information. To build the narrative, Lane relies heavily on archival news footage, old interviews (of the trio who shot the footage, only Chapin is still alive, and the film features no new interviews) and audio pulled from the thousands of hours of White House tape recordings famously and furtively made by Nixon. Even if you’ve heard them before, those secretly taped conversations still pack a punch, and hearing them over the found footage gives an interesting new context. But it’s the same story, just with different pictures.
The documentary’s opening credits, which cheekily roll like an old sitcom cast montage to the bouncy beat of Tracey Ullman’s “They Don’t Know,” get things off to an exhilarating start. And Our Nixon works best in its first hour — after a brief intro, the word “Watergate” isn’t even uttered until nearly an hour into its running time — as it reveals the headiness of the staffers in the early years of the administration. Their names are forever linked to shame and scandal, so it’s easy to forget that the three men at the center of this documentary were so young when they arrived at the White House — Haldeman, Nixon’s Chief of Staff, was the oldest at 34.
“I’ve never laughed as much as I did in the Nixon White House,” Chapin says at one point, and the wide-eyed joy of those early years comes through in Our Nixon’s new footage. We know that all that headiness turned into a dangerous arrogance soon enough. But watching those old home movies now, their freshness and enthusiasm is kind of heartbreaking. They all have so far to fall.
Our Nixon airs tonight at 9 on CNN and again on Aug. 4 and Aug. 10. Watch the trailer here.
Photos courtesy CNN.