Nixon documentary focuses on the other secret White House tapes: Home movies

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More than 40 years after Watergate, historians are still combing through the more than 2,300 hours of audio from President Richard Nixon’s secret White House taping system. A paranoid indulgence for a man obsessed with documentation, the tapes ultimately helped drive the 37th president from office in a scandal that still haunts the country.

But it turns out it wasn’t just Nixon who had a fondness for documentation in his White House. Locked away in the National Archives for decades were more than 200 reels of home movies featuring Nixon shot by a trio of his former top aides whose names have become synonymous with the Watergate scandal.

The reels of Super 8 film—shot by former Nixon chief of staff H.R. Haldeman, domestic policy adviser John Ehrlichman and Dwight Chapin, Nixon’s personal aide, all of whom were convicted for their roles in the Watergate conspiracy—are the subject of a new documentary, “Our Nixon.”

The movie, which closes out the New Directors/New Films festival sponsored by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and Museum of Modern Art on March 31, draws from the roughly 35 hours of Super 8 footage shot by Nixon’s confidants as well as the president’s audio recordings and other archival footage to offer a different side of the Nixon administration as it sunk into scandal.

Fueled in part by the paranoid tone of the so-called Watergate tapes, Nixon’s former aides have long been defined as ruthless political operatives willing to do anything to get their boss re-elected. But the home movies paint a more complex portrait of Nixon and his staffers, showing they had a lighter, “almost dorky” side, as Penny Lane, the film’s director puts it.

“There was this idea that everybody working for Nixon was sort of a grim, humorless gray man. That’s how these guys were written about in the news media,” Lane says. “But that’s so not what we see in the home movies. And the more we got to know them in looking over interviews and reading their memoirs, and I was like, wow, they really weren’t like that.”

Haldeman, Ehrlichman and Chapin filmed their boss and each other during key moments of the Nixon administration, including big events like Nixon’s 1972 trip to China, the 1969 Apollo Moon landing, protests over the Vietnam War and the 1971 wedding of Nixon’s daughter Tricia at the White House.

They also captured more random moments during Nixon’s White House years, including celebrities like Johnny Cash and actress Raquel Welch at the White House and Nixon lounging around poolside with foreign policy adviser Henry Kissinger—footage that is accompanied by audio of the president and his aides fretting about Kissinger’s many girlfriends at the time.

The Super 8 footage was confiscated by the FBI during the Watergate investigation before it was transferred to the Nixon Presidential Library in Yorba Linda, Calif., where it remained largely unnoticed until about a decade ago.

Brian L. Frye, a University of Kentucky law professor and producer of “Our Nixon,” first heard about the footage from an acquaintance who had been hired by the National Archives to help preserve the film. Intrigued by what might be on the home movies, Frye and Lane fronted nearly $20,000 to make a video transfer of the footage with the goal of possibly making an art film.

“We had no idea what we would find, what story these movies wanted to tell,” Frye recalled. “It was a big risk.”

What they found was hours of never-before-seen silent footage of Nixon and his former aides, whom Frye and Lane knew little about. They quickly began researching the people and sights in the movies, trying to figure out what they were looking at. At the same time, they launched a fundraising drive via Kickstarter to help raise money to complete the film, ultimately bringing in more than $15,000 from supporters all over the country.

The result is a movie that is part nostalgia and part tragedy. While the film is called “Our Nixon,” the documentary focuses less on Nixon himself and more on the close friendship of Haldeman, Ehrlichman and Chapin as they navigated the bizarre life of being a top White House aide.

There is footage of flights on Air Force One and of motorcades overseas and at home, where Nixon was greeted like a rock star during campaign stops for his 1972 re-election bid. The soundtrack is pure nostalgia, including “Nixon Now,” a cheesy jingle commissioned for the president’s 1972 campaign.

But the aides’ happy faces are soon contrasted with snippets of audio from Nixon’s White House tapes—which reveal their loyalty to a president who was plagued by insecurity and paranoia about his political opponents and who, in the end, seemed willing to do anything to save himself politically, even if that meant sacrificing his loyal aides.

“In a way, (the film) is really not about Nixon. It’s about Nixon through the eyes of the people who supported him, who cared about him, who believed him and who, ultimately, were betrayed by him,” Lane says.

The film is based entirely on “found footage”—including audio of interviews Haldeman, Ehrlichman and Chapin gave after they served time for their Watergate offenses. While Haldeman and Ehrlichman died many years ago, the filmmakers reached out to Chapin to see if he might help clarify what was happening in the Super 8 footage, but he declined.

In an email, Chapin, who is now a business consultant in East Hampton, N.Y., said he has seen the film and told Yahoo News the “home movie footage brings back many wonderful memories.” But Chapin suggested the film was a hit job because of the decision to blend those home movies with archival footage of interviews and Oval Office tapes that “have nothing to do with the film we shot.”

“It is like mixing oranges and apples,” Chapin said in an email. “Taking the Oval Office tapes of President Nixon and mixing that sound with our home movies creates pure fiction. A viewer cannot discern truth when the substance is made in the editing room by people who were not even present for the event.”

But Lane and Frye argue the point of their film wasn’t to make a Watergate movie or to offer judgment on what Nixon and his former aides did four decades ago. Their goal, they say, was to present a more complex picture of Nixon and his aides and to remind the public that, in the end, they were just human beings.

“It’s very easy to have a caricature of someone who becomes a historical villain as a cigar-smoking, bourbon-drinking person conspiring behind the scenes,” Frye said. “There may have been some of that going on, but … there are no villains in home movies. Everybody is happy and cheerful. They were human beings, and they had lives. Ultimately, they were just people.”

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