Little Watertight Compartments of Information
“Propaganda has never been and will never be interesting, and people should take that to heart. We wanted Our Nixon to be the anti-Nixon film… or rather I should say, the Anti-Nixon-Film Film. “
—Brian L. Frye
“My recollection is that, uh, this was discussed with you.”
—John Ehrlichman, Nixon White House Tapes
Editor’s note: Our Nixon premieres on CNN 1 August, before its release at New York’s IFC Center on 30 August, to be followed by a national roll-out.
“When you first go in there, at least when I first went in there,” remembers John Ehrlichman of working at the White House, “You ask a lot of hard questions. Why are we doing it this way? What’s the justification for this program? Why are we spending this money? Why does this fellow work here? You know, those kinds of things.” The images you see under Ehrlichman’s interview show a series of public displays, be-flagged limousines delivering dignitaries to the White House, Nixon and guests making their way up steps, sitting for cameras in the Oval Office, standing before microphones in the Rose Garden. “After a couple of years,” Ehrlichman goes on, “I was defending the status quo rather than challenging it and trying to get it changed and repaired and made better.” Nixon poses with more guests and more flags. Ehrlichman adds, “I was becoming part of the problem after a while, rather than the solution.”
The “problem” Ehrlichman notes here remains vague, colored by the receding context of the Nixon Administration he so notoriously helped to shape as Assistant to the President for Domestic Affairs. What’s remarkable in this iteration of his self-reflection, in the documentary, Our Nixon, is that it is set alongside his own Super 8 footage, as well as movies shot by Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman and Special Assistant Dwight Chapin, TV reports of Vietnam war protests or clips from the White House audiotapes. Penny Lane and Brian Frye’s “found footage” film puts together a story about what it was like “in there,” as Ehrlichman phrases it, inside an existence where priorities and perspectives were upended, or maybe just exposed.
The film juxtaposes images that are weirdly charming and utterly banal. Repeatedly, Nixon stands before cameras, and so the advisors who shoot him also shoot cameras, each innocuous image revealing the meta-story of documentation as a way of life in the White House. That this in itself becomes the means by which “Watergate” (in all its complexities) is uncovered and also reshaped, endlessly. In their post-White House interviews, with David Frost or Phil Donahue, among others, the men who made this White House seem almost to wonder at what happened and at the man they served so diligently. As Ehrlichman reflects on what he knew and didn’t know, he also notes that the president tried to keep “little watertight compartments of information,” an effort that, in the end, “didn’t work very well.”
Our Nixon assembles home-movie shots, antics and giggles, bouncing handheld frames and brief stretches of film leader, Ehrlichman fooling with his camera or the strikingly youthful (27-year-old) Chapin watching TV, rope-line crowds waving, Kissinger posing in swim trunks and Haldeman smiling broadly at the Great Wall. Their voiceovers are equally wide-ranging, goofy and vicious. And then, as you listen to Nixon and his men snipe at Kissinger’s dalliances with pretty girls or the celebration of homosexuals on All in the Family (it’s “fatal liberality,” mutters Ehrlichman, “a different set of values that has been induced”), you see long, clumsy pans of tulips outside the White House. Such contrasts underscore both the men’s brutal judgments their ignorance, their absurdity and the awful power they wielded so indiscriminately.
If these contrasts and hypocrisies aren’t precisely news, or even specific to the Nixon white House, they are vivid here, veering between comedy and tragedy. Much like Asif Kapadia’s brilliant found footage documentary Senna, Our Nixon develops tensions and finds connections in a broad range of clips. Here, editor Francisco Bello molds a story that’s simultaneously coherent and messy, asking you to wonder at how one man—or one group of men—could manage so many opposite-seeming ideas.
Chapin offers one version of an explanation when he says in a 2007 interview, “These incredible friendships, our personalities and our senses of humor. That made it all nice.” He, Haldeman, and Ehrlichman, of course, were all convicted and served prison sentences, but still, he rejects the characterization of the Plumbers, CREEP, or the cover-up as having “an air of criminality” or as “people [who] were trying to rape the country of its democracy.” He insists, “I just don’t see it that way.” If the movie doesn’t dispute that way of seeing outright, it shows repeatedly the narrowness of that view, the odious self-isolation of the president’s men.
At the same time, this excellent documentary prompts more questions than it answers, including the one presented by its title. Whose Nixon might these movies reveal, as he performs for television and other cameras, makes speeches, waves from podiums, stands and smiles alongside Pat or dances at Tricia’s wedding? How do the men around him create or cause him, how do they curb or incite? Our Nixon shows views of the president framed by particular filmmakers, views that are now reframed as worrying, because you know what might have been going on off camera, what you don’t see when Nixon hunches his shoulders and flashes his V signs. But you can’t know what you don’t see, you can’t guess at what someone means when he makes even the most alarming comment. The movie is, more than anything else, about the limits of possession, of knowledge, of trust and truth.
As if to underline, the film spends little time on Watergate per se, as this is the context that shapes it. And so you wonder, again, whose Nixon might it be who speaks in the Oval Office, knowing that he’s being taped? How does he perform himself and how does he forget to perform? Following the break-in at the Watergate and the start of the media and congressional investigations, Nixon asks Ehrlichman whether he, Nixon, knew. “I’m in a position,” the president says on the tapes that sealed his fate, “I just didn’t know about.” Years after, Ehrlichman says, “It occurs to me that he was talking for the record.” Still, the former aide goes on, “I’m convinced that he really didn’t know the difference between what was true and what wasn’t true at any given moment. For a long time, he could persuade himself of almost anything, which is kind of too bad.”
Kind of. It’s just this sort of imprecision, in language and reasoning, that produced Watergate. As images in Our Nixon capture experiences and show perspectives, they also cannot quite do either, not completely. Home movies in the White House can’t help but be about more than the people who shoot them and the people who appear in them, more than home and more than movies. With its focus on the men who made the movies, Our Nixon invites you to think about who watches, too.