Last month, CBS Sunday Morning did a piece on the Nixon Tapes that was hardly revelatory, but the segment was really just promotion for a new book featuring transcriptions of the tapes by historians Douglas Brinkley and Luke Nichter (The Nixon Tapes: 1971–1972, published last week). What was achieved there in eight minutes is spread out over more than an hour in the documentary Nixon by Nixon: In His Own Words. Of course, there are more audio clips and a more extensive presentation of Richard Nixon’s presidency, at least from 1971, when he started his secret recordings, to his resignation in August 1974. Yet for a truly comprehensive chronicle, why not just read the transcripts compiled for the book? Well, for the voices, I guess.
Nichter served as a consultant on Nixon by Nixon, which is a terribly rudimentary and barely visual film that should be considered little more than a TV special commemorating the 40th anniversary of Nixon’s departure from the White House. The documentary opens with such basic, slowly communicated set-up, telling us (more than reminding us) in large and simple text that he was the first president to resign, that he made these tapes and that only two other men knew about the recording — in fact this last point occurs over a few screens as we meet the cast of voices by name and photo and whether or not they were in the loop, like a list of characters at the start of a play. Let’s just pretend it’s one of Shakespeare’s histories.
For a while, the film seems intent on highlighting Nixon’s most racist and sexist remarks. We’ve known for years about the tapes featuring the president talking disparagingly of Jews, including Henry Kissinger, but many of the clips in the doc are relatively new to the public ear. Hundreds of hours have only been let go from the National Archives in the past few years. Nixon wasn’t shy about his opinions on different ethnicities, and he used some horrible slurs when discussing illegal immigrants (during the controversy of his appointment of Ramona Banuelos as treasurer), female candidates for the Supreme Court (namely Mildred Lillie) and welfare and the future of African Americans. Jewish people get the brunt of it, though, at least in the excerpts selected for Nixon by Nixon, including a bit on Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers. Maybe the press is vilified more, but not by much.
Early on, the film plays part of a 1982 interview with John Ehrlichman, in which the former domestic advisor to the president points out something more obvious than prescient: the Nixon Tapes would wind up mainly shared as snippets that offer an incorrect impression of the man. He says that he hopes historians will listen to all the tapes and come out with a summation of Nixon as “the strangest paradoxical combination of any man” ever heard of. That may be what Brinkley and Nichter are trying to do, and I assume by including the clip that Nixon by Nixon also wants to be seen as more understanding of the complexity of its subject. But the doc suffers, logically, for having to work with snippets, and too many are clearly played for shock value over depth of character.
If we can’t depend on the audio, which is the draw here, for a complete picture — that would require a doc running a minimum of 3,700 hours, which is how much recorded material there is (some of it still unreleased) — then it’d be beneficial to at least have something worth looking at. This is a movie, after all. But director Peter Kunhardt, who makes similarly titled docs suited for TV (such as Teddy: In His Own Words and Gloria: In Her Own Words) yet has done well before with archival compilation, gives us nothing of value here. Most of the time we’re just watching text of the audio typed out across the screen next to avatar icons of the people talking. Occasionally we see a clip like the Ehrlichman interview or footage of Nixon before, during or after his time as president. There’s a lot of token random material of bombs dropping on North Vietnam, some repeated. At one point we hear an exchange between Nixon and Pat Buchanan and the full-screen visual is just a stock still photo of the speechwriter, a boring image that’s also redundant given that Buchanan’s avatar icon is also on screen.
There is also notably some overlap between Nixon by Nixon and Penny Lane’s recent doc Our Nixon. A few clips are found in both, but also one of the most interesting visual clips in the former — of an unexpected anti-war protest from one of the Ray Conniff Singers during a concert at the White House — is prominently featured in the latter, as well. Even with inclusion of juicy Nixon Tapes snippets, Our Nixon plays well enough on the strength of its visuals, comprised mainly of Super 8 home movies shot by Ehrlichman, H.R. Haldeman and Dwight Chapin, and even if in total the doc doesn’t add up to a whole lot, there are plenty of engaging pieces. Nixon by Nixon is even less significant in its sum, and while it’s the kind of doc where you can just close your eyes and listen, there’s not enough for aural satisfaction, either.
After 40 years, our fascination with Nixon is fair, particularly when the focus is on the non-cliche and non-caricature elements that have us considering the man and his presidency as indeed paradoxically complex. At least Nixon by Nixon recognizes, albeit briefly in a montage, a lot of the good Nixon did — some of it near-comically contrasted by comments on the tapes — because, after all, the recordings were intended to supplement the history of his greatest achievements while in office. It’s an inferred irony that because of the nature of the recording system, which unlike earlier and later White House tapes was voice-activated and so picked up everything, that they have been used almost exclusively for the infamy of Watergate and Nixon’s unfortunate language choices.
That makes the meaning of the doc’s title seem less wrong than it could. In the context of Kunhardt’s other docs, especially those where the subject is still alive and provides a new interview, the “In His Own Words” part here is something of a sad accident. The main title of “Nixon by Nixon” implies an autobiographically authorial perspective, or at least something of control from Nixon, who died 20 years ago. We can bet that he wouldn’t have seen the film as positive in any manner let alone something he’d want credit for. But that’s the tragedy of it, that technically it’s all him, regardless of its editorial manipulation by Kunhardt. I don’t get the notion that the filmmaker was going for the big joke there, though. But I don’t get the notion he was going for very much at all.