Filmmaker Penny Lane on divisive personalities, collateral consequences, and the question of Nixon’s presidency as aberration in her new film, Our Nixon.
When Richard Nixon’s three closest companions, John Erlichman, H.R. Haldeman, and Dwight Chapin (three names that now live in infamy) began to film Super 8 home movies in the White House, they were young and idealistic, intensely devoted to their new jobs. They had, of course, no inkling that a few years later they would be in prison. These three carefully committed to film the Apollo moon landing, a historic visit to China, and many more day-to-day events—until the Watergate scandal broke. Their footage is not all what we might expect; Ehrlichman, for example, was especially fond of filming hummingbirds. The men filmed because they hoped and believed Nixon’s presidency would change the world, assuming they would wish to remember those moments, to treasure them.
Our Nixon, the first feature documentary from director Penny Lane, sifts through the thousands of hours of forgotten home movies shot by Nixon’s top aides during his presidency. Lane re-contextualizes the footage, filed away for 40 years since being seized by the FBI, and interweaves it with period news clips, excerpts from Nixon audiotapes, and pop cultural touchstones from the era. What emerges is a unique portrait of the 37th presidency, a reign that has long since wrought intrigue and outrage, and boasts the sole presidential resignation from office in United States history.
The film offers an unusually nuanced sketch of Nixon and his associates, leaving the audience to consider contradictory fragments of history and draw their own conclusions. I spoke with Lane about the new light Our Nixon sheds on the Watergate scandal, and on the complexity of the man behind it.
Anya Jaremko-Greenwold Why Nixon? Were you interested in his story because of its legacy, or because you thought people didn’t know the whole story? What new things, if any, does the footage in this film reveal?
Penny Lane Why not Nixon! It isn’t that I had some sort of burning desire to make a Richard Nixon film. I was not obsessed with him, and I didn’t even know more about him than the average person who went to college. But these home movies surfaced and they did something that was kind of hard to explain initially, that was different and surprising. It didn’t change the way I felt about Nixon, but it added a layer of something new. Something confusing and mysterious. Brian Frye (my co-producer) and I felt that right away. It sounds sort of banal to say, “The revelation is that these guys were human beings.” That is the revelation, but it’s hard to explain or pitch that without watching the film.
AJG Often with people in power, the public expects them not to make the same mistakes the rest of us would. They’re supposed to be more perfect, somehow.
PL Well we’re supposed to think they’re better than us! Shouldn’t they be, if they have all this power? You do want to believe that they’re Supermen.
AJG At the beginning of the film there’s an interesting song choice: “They Don’t Know About Us” by Tracey Ullman. Was this song meant playfully or is it more meaningful? Does it speak to the fact you may have felt Nixon, Haldeman, Ehrichman, and Chapin were misunderstood or unfairly villainized, in some sense?
PL It’s both playful and not. We always knew we wanted to have a love song in that sequence. The reason we loved the Tracy Ullman song is because the theme of it is actually very appropriate. Haldeman, Ehrlichman, and Chapin, in very different ways over the years, have made it clear that the press, the media, and the historians have gotten Nixon wrong, and have gotten them wrong probably even more. There’s some validity to their point of view, and our film respectfully presents that point of view, as much as it respectfully presents counter points of view.
AJG Why did you choose to make the film using only old footage, without any newer interviews or perspectives, or even a newly recorded voiceover to structure the story?
PL We always wanted to do that, and we always reserved the right to charge our minds if we had to, if we couldn’t make it work! The film, for us, was really about engaging with history. It’s an attempt to grapple with the fragments of history that exist, and then trying to make some sense of it. And it doesn’t always make sense. There’s messiness and contradictions and arguments. If we’d had some sit-down interviews with people today, they would have become the authority, and then everything else would have been considered lesser than the authority. And there wasn’t supposed to be a central authority in our film. You’re supposed to allow yourself to be equally skeptical; if you look at someone like a Dan Rather, or an H.R. Haldeman, you might come to your own conclusion that one or both of them are lying, wrong, or dumb. We actually made a film where somehow it all made sense enough to be a story.
AJG It’s hard to make an entire movie without an overlying perspective or authoritative voice.
PL I agree. The hardest thing was finding the voice of the film without literally having a voice for the film.
AJG Was it important for you to stay out of the film personally, and to present an objective, unbiased perspective on the Nixon era?
PL Yes, though of course I would never really claim to be unbiased. But both Brian and I, and our editor Francisco Bello, if you knew us personally, we’re really not ideologically motivated in terms of our interest in documentary film. All three of us were not necessarily objective, but very open-minded to different points of view, and kind of saying, “Well, I think Haldeman has a point there” or “Dan Rather has a point here,” or whatever. For us it was not difficult to accept all those different points of view. The challenge was doing it in a way that wouldn’t alienate our multiple audiences. We wanted people to be able to watch the film even who are already obsessed with Nixon, who have very strong feelings. . .
AJG It’s hard to change their minds at this point.
PL Right, and we would never pretend we could do that. We wanted to make a film that wouldn’t turn off Nixon lovers or haters too much. I would ask everyone who saw it to challenge to some extent their own biases, points of view, and the neat little story they tell themselves about the Nixon presidency. And hopefully, in a gentle way, this film will present some things that interrupt or confuse what you think you already know as black and white, cut and dry.
AJG You and Brian have written, in your production statement about the film, that when you went looking through this footage you were surprised to see the story of Nixon, contrary to the Oliver Stone version, “wasn’t all dark rooms with grim, severe-looking men holding sweaty glasses of scotch while plotting evil.” Instead, you found a lot of “smiling children, American flags, hand shaking, silly photo ops, and nerdy guys goofing off at work.” Did all that seemingly innocent home movie footage change anything for you?
PL Well, rather than relying on the same ten excerpts from the White House tapes that everyone always uses that tell the same old story yet again, in every single film that’s ever been made, we were really on a mission to show new things not just for the sake of them being new but to try and make the story more complicated. Seeing all those images didn’t change how I thought about Nixon, but it made me think about America at the time, and how in my 40-years-later, pop-culture inspired so-called knowledge of the era, I had forgotten a lot of those people that existed. I hadn’t really thought about the fact that in 1969 most people weren’t at Woodstock, most people were voting for Richard Nixon. In 1972, most people weren’t criticizing the Vietnam War, most people were voting for Nixon again. It’s obvious, if you know your history, but there was something about seeing those faces, endless scenes of people going crazy for Richard Nixon—that did affect my thinking about the era.
AJG Your movie also serves to remind us that a president has only so much power. In the film, someone on tape claims Nixon was indeed trying to end the Vietnam War, and that he was taking steps to pull the troops out, even as people were demonstrating in the streets against the war. I have no idea whether that’s true or false. But there’s so much red tape for any president to get through. It might perhaps be similar to how frustrated people become with Obama for not making things happen more quickly.
PL Yes. Well I don’t want to necessarily get into this too much because it makes people angry! (laughter) But I can certainly see that Nixon and his guys had a point, and I’m not really sure what incentive they would have had to want the war to continue. It seems like they would have wanted to end it. So, I’m not totally clear on why people would think they didn’t want to end it. I wasn’t there, so I don’t know.
AJG Haldeman, Ehrichman, and Chapin are big players in this whole thing. Even if they were relatively innocent when they came into the White House, they were certainly corrupted by the power they gained, or perhaps they simply loved and admired Nixon so much, they wanted to stand by him no matter what. Did you find the stories of these three intriguing because there must have been some good reason men of intelligence would follow Nixon and be so loyal to him throughout everything that went wrong?
PL Sure, that was part of it. I have a hard time relating to that, personally. I don’t have an easy time endorsing anyone, especially not a politician! Politicians are just the worst. I have lots of beliefs, but the process of politics itself is just awful. I was kind of curious to understand more about that, but like I said, with all those Americans who supported Nixon, I started thinking about how whatever your point of view on Nixon is, ultimately, he really betrayed his supporters. He let them down, is the nicest way of putting it. It’s kind of heart-breaking. Thinking about these guys, all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and how they went down, it made me think the real trauma of Watergate wasn’t what I really thought it was. It wasn’t the fact that Daniel Ellsberg was scared for his life—that’s bad, but the big picture, the cultural trauma, was all of these people who had put their faith in Nixon, and had been so let down. I can’t imagine having that happen.
AJG And nothing quite like that has happened since. As I understand it, there was not necessarily direct proof that Nixon had instructed his cohorts to break into the Democratic National Committee building, but he obviously obstructed the investigation on the break-in, which was highly suspicious. He had some sort of plans kept secret, that were not part of the general knowledge, that the public and Congress weren’t aware of. He wanted things kept hidden from his country. But doesn’t this happen more or less in every presidency? The lies, the trying to gain advantage, the evasion of public scrutiny—and Nixon just happened to get caught?
PL That’s definitely something I think about a lot. I don’t have an answer, but I think it’s a worthwhile conversation. I know that there are a lot of people in the world who get really upset when you start going down that road. And maybe they’re right, that Nixon’s presidency was an absolute aberration, and these were just the worst men that ever lived. And you think, Well, maybe? I guess to me it seems more like common sense, and more likely, that they weren’t that aberrational. We’ll never know, because we’ll never have the kind of documentation and evidence that we have of Nixon, and in that way it will always remain an aberration, whether or not it really was. We’ll never have 4,000 hours of tapes from the Obama White House, so we’ll never know what he talks about behind closed doors, or whether he’s bigoted and tired and petty sometimes.
AJG And there are different sides to every story. There’s not one single truth to discover. Whether Nixon was a “good” or “bad” guy, there’s not really an answer.
PL I hope there’s not an answer. But you and I might be in the minority on that one.
AJG What are you working on next?
PL I’ve been working on a film called Nuts for over five years. It’s about an early twentieth-century con man who garnered fame and fortune by claiming he could cure impotence by implanting goat testicles into men.
AJG Wow! Does that work?
PL Well, that’s the whole question of the film!
Our Nixon opens August 30th at IFC Center. For more on Penny Lane visit her website.
Anya Jaremko-Greenwold is a film critic based in New York City.