"Our Nixon" director: "He was a human being, and people don't recognize that"

Director Penny Lane talks to Salon about the "cute" moments on the Nixon tapes, and how other movies get him wrong

By Daniel D'Addario
Published August 28, 2013 11:01PM (EDT)
Movie still from "Our Nixon"
Movie still from "Our Nixon"

Richard Nixon's audio tapes have become the most famous surveillance system in the history of politics. But the 37th president's aides produced a far more innocent recording system all their own.

H. R. Haldeman, John Ehrlichman, and Dwight Chapin, three White House employees who ended up serving time in prison for their involvement in the Watergate scandal, made videotapes of their time working for Nixon for posterity. The tapes, which had been hosted in the National Archives, were edited together into the briskly moving picaresque, which opens in select theaters August 30. An exclusive clip, depicting Henry Kissinger's "swinging" bachelor behavior at a White House dinner, is below:

Our Nixon - In Theaters 8/30 from BONDinfluence on Vimeo.

The tapes don't depict scandalous incidents -- indeed, they're prosaic, depicting Nixon traveling to China, meeting political supporters, and introducing a Lawrence Welk-y group of singers.

But the movie is suffused with political crisis -- those singers, as square and mainstream as they come, condemn Nixon and praise Daniel Ellsberg before they sing. And the viewer's knowledge of what's going to come for the aides, Nixon and the nation never goes away, no matter how much fun Haldeman and company are all having as young, optimistic aides. It's a deeply ironic movie, and a chilling one.

Penny Lane, the film's director, spoke to Salon about the degree to which her film humanizes a president commonly seen as one of history's worst and most villainous.

How did you first become aware of the tapes' existence, and where did you watch them?

These tapes were at the National Archives and my co-producer heard about them from a friend who'd done some work at the National Archives about 10 years ago. The preservation world is a very small world and a lot of people knew these were there. Anyone could have done it, we just had to put in a pretty significant amount of money to make aspect copies. We made these copies to edit them together.

Is there stuff you wish you'd been able to include that you couldn't?

Of course! It's hours of material! It's all great! I think probably the stuff that I was most sad I didn't get to use more of was the endless travelogue footage, seeing all these amazing places that could have made up so many more movies. But a little of that goes a long way in terms of telling our story. You don't need to include a million places to see that story.

The story seems to be one of disillusionment, in a sense.

It's not really disillusionment in the sense that at least two of the three main characters don't become disillusioned. Neither Haldeman nor Chapin have expressed disillusionment -- it's about betrayal. They talked about going to Washington and wanting to change things. And eventually, you become part of the problem. You're watching these beautiful images of people working so hard and not knowing what's coming. There was a lot of -- Watergate as criminal conspiracy is very important but I think it's been widely covered. We weren't interested in retreading Watergate as criminal conspiracy. We were interested in Watergate as personal betrayal.

These men stood in for the whole forgotten part of the American population that loved Richard Nixon, voted for him, shook his hand at rallies. To have supported him in any way and that things turned out the way they did must have been devastating.

Many people reevaluate the Nixon years and say he wasn't that bad a president, Watergate aside.

For someone who was not around when Watergate happened -- I was not alive during his presidency -- if I had experienced that presidency firsthand I might have a stronger understanding of why people get so upset over Watergate. The way it played out on the national stage was traumatic for everybody. It went on for two years -- and for decades in a sense. It traumatized people in a way I understand intellectually but not emotionally. The way it played out was this huge trauma. There are so many people whose blood it gets boiling. For everyone who wants to reevaluate the presidency there are people who think now he's worse than we thought. We did not know we were engaging a subject that got such strong and varied reactions. We didn't know it evoked the emotion and bile some people feel.

What do you think people get wrong about Nixon?

If you just look at one thing -- the way he's represented on film -- it's inaccurate. He wasn't always venting and awkward and plotting conspiracies in back rooms. I don't think people are prepared to recognize that, at the time he was president, he was an excellent statesman. He could give a speech, those were some of the greatest speeches ever. He was a human being, and people don't recognize that. That's the message of our film -- that these are human beings, flawed ones. We have a societal need to turn him into a demon -- remember the time this demon was elected?

So you think his sins, as well, were human.

I don't think we really know -- Nixon loyalists will say everybody did that stuff, everybody in politics. We didn't think twice. That's the line. I don't feel like I'm in a position to evaluate those statements. Common sense would dictate that's likely. But that's not conventional wisdom, which is that he was a demon who's aberrational in every way. That's a story we need to tell ourselves but it doesn't pass the sniff test.

What do you think will emerge from the most recently released set of Nixon tapes? 

I listened to a lot of the previously released tapes. People think they've heard those tapes. They've heard the ten excerpts that made him resign. Those are very important excerpts, but there are 4,000 hours of tapes. Most of them are banal, or kind of cute and funny. It represents the whole range of his personality. I wish people would take the time to examine the full range of impact those tapes have. One of the goals of our film is to use as many of the longer excerpts that people hadn't heard before as possible, to show they weren't just about criminality. The tapes were probably the most humanizing thing we've had in the history of presidential politics.

Whatever's the most horrible part of the 300 hours is, I guarantee, what we'll been hearing. There's an excerpt that's really cute where he's making dinner reservations for his daughter. I would click on it -- would anyone else?

Daniel D'Addario

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