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Does a CNN Broadcast Turn 'Our Nixon' Into TV?

Television
by Sam Adams
August 1, 2013 3:38 PM
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Nixon

You don't think of Richard Nixon as a member of the selfie generation, but the 500 reels of home-movie footage that provided the raw material for Penny Lane's documentary, Our Nixon, prove that obsessive documentation isn't just a found-footage plot device. Although broadcast news footage and excerpts from Nixon's infamous Oval Office recordings provide context, the bulk of the film is made up of silent 8mm footage shot by Nixon aides H.R. Haldeman, John Erlichmann and Dean Chapin, much of it captured with the eye of an eager tourist.

All three of Our Nixon's unwitting cinematographers would eventually do time for crimes related to the Watergate break-in, but there's no sign of the gathering doom in the images of a smiling Nixon joking with onlookers at his daughter's wedding or stepping off the plane during his landmark visit to China. Lane's co-producer, Bryan Frye, has called Our Nixon "an anti-anti-Nixon-film film," and while he doesn't name names, the contrast with found-footage master Emile de Antonio's scathing Millhouse: A White Comedy is striking. (Lane cites De Antonio's Point of Order! and In the Year of the Pig as influences, but says she wasn't aware of Millhouse until she started researching her film.) Rather than an in-the-moment polemic, Our Nixon is an insider's history, literally capturing the perspectives of those who were closest to Nixon himself.

Our Nixon has been doing the festival rounds, but tonight it screens on CNN (a theatrical run is scheduled for Aug. 30). It's instructive to compare the early reviews from the festival circuit with those appearing in conjunction with the CNN broadcast. Where film critics generally praised the film's impressionistic, relatively open-ended approach, some TV critics have faulted it for not taking a more precisely expository approach. Here's the New York Times' Alessandra Stanley: 

It's not entirely clear what the film's vivid pastiche of home movies and archival material amounts to. It's an engrossing but somewhat aimless and impressionistic ramble through the Nixon presidency and tumult of the 1970s. At times it leans too heavily on artistic license.

A snippet from Nixon’s "Silent Majority" address of Nov 3, 1969, is followed by a phone conversation in which he can be heard soliciting praise from Haldeman. The viewer assumes that they are discussing that famous 1969 speech, but its turns out that this conversation took place in 1971 and was about an entirely different address. What matters in that instance is not the speech, but Nixon's craving for approval. It's a misleading and quite unnecessary fudge that erodes the viewers' trust in the film, and in CNN, for allowing it.

The kind of composite moment Stanley singles out is commonplace in theatrical documentary, but when it's presented on television, especially on a news network, suddenly the dreaded artistic license becomes a matter of trust -- not just in the film, or its makers, but in the corporation that's chosen to air it. (Picture Stanley's head exploding in the fall, when CNN airs the activist doc Blackfish.) Our Nixon never presents itself as a comprehensive history, and anyone with a film background would know that every single sound layered over the 8mm footage has been added after the fact, but for Stanley, the word "documentary" brings with it a host of unexamined assumptions and rigid formatting that she damns the film for transgressing.

While several Nixon staffers have denounced the film for its purported fact-fudging, Nixon staffer David Gergen says that "while this isn't the complete Richard Nixon, viewers get a revealing, first-hand look at parts of the man rarely seen." Of course, Gergen is a paid analyst for the network that's airing the film, so he's not free from conflict, but he at least seems to understand what Our Nixon is trying to do and what it isn't.

Read a review of Our Nixon by Indiewire's Alison Willmore here.

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