Monday, November 24, 2014
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Behind the scenes in Nixon's White House

President Nixon at a large 1972 rally, a few days before his historic landslide reelection.Super 8 film still courtesy of Dipper Films <br />
President Nixon at a large 1972 rally, a few days before his historic landslide reelection.Super 8 film still courtesy of Dipper Films
President Nixon at a large 1972 rally, a few days before his historic landslide reelection.Super 8 film still courtesy of Dipper Films <br /> Gallery: Behind the scenes in Nixon's White House

Turns out Bob Haldeman, Dwight Chapin, and John Ehrlichman were way ahead of their time. The three senior advisers to President Richard M. Nixon were all compulsive shooters of video - decades before the advent of YouTube and Vine.

The three men all used Super 8 cameras (which means the audio is poor or nonexistent) to exhaustively document their time in the White House. During the Watergate investigation, the FBI confiscated 500 reels of their personal footage. (Haldeman and Ehrlichman were convicted of conspiracy and obstruction of justice in the scandal, and Chapin was convicted of lying to a grand jury.)

Recently uncovered, these vivid color images make a sensational backbone for the film Our Nixon (9 p.m. Thursday on CNN, with frequent repeats). The documentary captures both ceremonial and casual tableaus of the presidency.

There is a montage, for instance, of Nixon meeting numerous foreign dignitaries, including Haile Selassie and Golda Meir.

Other faces - from John Mitchell and Henry Kissinger to Hubert Humphrey and Sam Ervin - bring memories of that turbulent political era flooding back. There are also echoes of current events, with Daniel Ellsberg foreshadowing Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden.

There are some odd surprises along the way, for instance, a really uncomfortable moment with (of all groups) the Ray Conniff Singers and a passionately homophobic critique by Nixon of a new CBS series, All in the Family.

The score contains some curiosities as well, such as the period ditty "They Don't Know," which sounds like the Bangles but was recorded in 1983 by a pre-fame Tracey Ullman.

Over time, the Nixon administration has grown so gray in our minds that the bright, almost festive hues of these home movies are startling, almost disconcerting. It's like watching old Hollywood classics after they were colorized by Ted Turner.

The Super 8 footage is blended with news and archival clips and overlaid with audio, including a variety of revealing phone conversations Nixon had with his aides that he secretly recorded.

Like all home movies, those in Our Nixon seem both random and intimate. The format lends the footage a warm, relaxed glow in which all the principals bathe. Well, except for Nixon, who always seems tense and awkward in his own skin, as though each moment demanded of him another onerous performance.

This is a rich revival, from Nixon's first inauguration in 1969 through his official state visits to the Vatican and, later, China. But the chronological narrative stalls as it grinds without fresh insights over the trampled turf of Watergate.

The retrieved home movie footage creates a lambent prism through which the '70s seem like a simpler time. It also makes Our Nixon a uniquely dynamic time capsule.

 


Contact David Hiltbrand at dhiltbrand@phillynews.com, read his blog at www.inquirer.com/daveondemand, or follow on Twitter @daveondemand_TV.

David Hiltbrand Inquirer TV Critic
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