It turns out the men behind Richard Nixon’s “dirty tricks” were actually nice guys just doing their jobs.
That’s the impression CNN Films/Cinedigm’s new documentary “Our Nixon” wants you to have of H.R. Haldeman, John Ehrlichman, and Dwight Chapin.
“These friendships are golden,” a choked up Chapin, the only one still alive, says about his bond with Haldeman and Ehrlichman. “The era of criminality. I just don’t see it that way.”
They all shared a passion for home video making.
Director Penny Lane uses 500 reels of Super 8 home movies filmed by the three top aides during their time in the Nixon White House before they were incarcerated on conspiracy and perjury charges for their part in the Watergate scandal.
For 40 years, the footage stayed locked away in the National Archives.
Video of their children at the White House Easter egg roll, their trips to China and the Vatican with Nixon, and candid interviews offer sympathetic portraits of the men who were blindly loyal to Nixon, and each other.
Haldeman was 43 when he became Nixon’s chief of staff, He was sent to jail in 1975, and after serving 18 months, embarked on a career in business. He died in late 1993, less than a year before Nixon.
Ehrlichman also served 18 months, and died in 1999.
The youngest of the three, Chapin was only in his twenties when he was recruited by Haldeman to join the Nixon White House as a special assistant to the President. He currently resides in East Hampton.
The band of brothers were given the more sinister moniker “The Berlin Wall” by the press due to their German surnames, and strenuous protection of the president.
In the film, they look more like boyish “Mad Men” characters in their sleek suits and haircuts, huddled around their boss all hours of the day, taking telephone calls from him to boost his ego or talk about the mundane.
Lane makes superb use of Nixon’s recorded conversations with her subjects here.
“It was a god damn good speech,” a puffed up Nixon tells Haldeman in a phone chat after his “Silent Majority” address to the nation. “It was done with style.”
Haldeman confirms Nixon’s self-gratification.
Nixon’s humor can be disturbing.
“They were glorifying homosexuality,” an indignant president tells Haldeman about a movie he had seen on CBS. “Homosexuality and immorality in general are the enemies of societies,” he says. “You ever see what happened to the Greeks? Homosexuality destroyed them. Aristotle was a homosexual. So was Socrates. The last six Roman emperors were fags.”
“I never laughed as much,” Chapin says of his pre-Watergate days. “The sense of humor was the leveling factor.”
But then their golden time as the king’s men turned to dust, as their proximity to the Watergate break in was investigated.
“I love you,” Nixon tells Haldeman after he accepted his resignation. “Keep the faith.”
While Nixon resigned in August 1974, he never pardoned Haldeman, Ehrlichman or Chapin.
“There’s a lot more to my life than Watergate,” Haldeman says. “There’s a lot more to my life than politics.”
“Our Nixon” debuts on CNN on Aug. 1, and has a theatrical release date of Aug. 30 in New York at IFC Center with a national rollout to follow.
(Stephanie Green is a writer and photographer for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Any opinions expressed are her own.)
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