The Aug. 9 40th anniversary of President Richard M. Nixon's resignation is almost upon us, and it's being accompanied by the recent releases of archival material and re-interpretations of the 37th president that portray Nixon as more than just a disgraced caricature.
Chief among these, partly because they marry the power of actual images to the sounds of real people's voices, are two documentaries: Last week's Documentary of the Week "Nixon by Nixon" by Peter Kunhardt and this week's pick, "Our Nixon" by Penny Lane. Both are the kind of movies that give non-fiction filmmaking a good name. Kunhardt's film relies on Nixon's secret tape recordings and archival news reports to paint the picture of the behind-the scenes president. Lane's film is a different animal that uses some of the same techniques, but has an incredible twist, leaning on Super-8 home movies taken by White House aides H.R. Haldeman, John Ehrlichman and Dwight Chapin that were impounded by the FBI until just a few years ago.
What unfurls in Lane's movie are images of a White House staff in its most candid moments, some light-hearted, some puzzling. It shows how much fun it can be in the White House and how dull it can be. Many of the film's scenes depict a heavy conversation between, say, Nixon and Haldeman or Ehrlichman while the camera rolls on an image unfolding outside the West Wing -- a hummingbird or a squirrel eating or spring-time blooms on the grounds. It's a weird, abstractly sublime contrast.
"Our Nixon" shows a world most people don't get to see outside of staffers and the press. It's a view of the play from backstage, and the program is one of the most consequential epochs in American history.