'Our Nixon': History in the unmaking

  • Article by: ROB NELSON , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 9, 2014 - 2:16 PM

Using home movies from the president’s men, “Our Nixon” offers a cockeyed view of his downfall.

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“Our Nixon” is put together largely from home video.

It’s not just American history buffs who’ll flip over “Our Nixon,” documentarian Penny Lane’s generously accessible, ingeniously edited compendium of unearthed archival material, including footage shot in Super 8 by three of the former president’s closest associates.

Magnetically gripping from first frame to last, Lane’s film is now available for streaming via Netflix (with subscription); it’s also available on DVD and via iTunes and Amazon Instant Video, et al.

“Our Nixon” is built largely on the scratchy “home movies” of White House aides John Ehrlichman, Dwight Chapin and, particularly, H.R. Haldeman, Nixon’s chief of staff and his self-described “S.O.B.”

It also makes shrewd use of the often bilious audiotapes that the president curiously made, although the film isn’t so much an indictment of Nixon (what good would that be at this point?) as it is an aptly cockeyed look at his surreally corrupt administration.

Through Lane’s searing montage, the viewer sees that Tricky Dick was adept at flashing the victory sign for the cameras but pathetically unable to keep his darker impulses in check. One of the movie’s black-comic highlights is Nixon’s utterly backward rant about what he saw as the “homosexual” subtext of TV’s “All in the Family.” Others of his outbursts aren’t as easily laughed off.

Also new on VOD

Amazingly, Netflix also has documentary giant Emile de Antonio’s heretofore rare “Millhouse: A White Comedy” (1971) — which, as a scathing portrait of a then-sitting U.S. president, predates Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11” by more than 30 years. (Alas, the latter film is currently available only via DVD.)

A more heroic documentary protagonist than Nixon (to say the least), Jared Leto acts as David to the corporate media Goliath in “Artifact,” an awkwardly assembled but entertaining music industry curtain-peeler in the spirit of “Dig!” The film chronicles the epic legal battle between Leto’s L.A. pop-rock outfit 30 Seconds to Mars and its label, Virgin Records, whose parent company sued the band for $30 million on grounds that it had failed to make good on its contract — or to make enough money, perhaps.

While the group’s neo-grunge tunes are woefully formulaic, the outcome of its struggle remains, at least for non-fans, thoroughly unpredictable. Directed under a pseudonym by Leto (so much for documentary objectivity), “Artifact” surprisingly transcends its promo-tool status by exploring the myriad reasons for record labels’ revenue decline and exposing their subsequent endeavors as nasty cash-grab schemes. No wonder the band’s album is called “This Is War.”

Speaking of music movies: Newly available in an “extended fan edition” is “One Direction: This Is Us,” whose director, Morgan Spurlock (“Super Size Me”), does less than Leto to make his subjects compelling to those over age 20.

Older groupies will need to make do with Nimrod Antal’s “Metallica Through the Never,” a disappointingly pro forma rock doc that’s streamable near the end of this month.

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  • This is a 1972 photo of former U.S. President Richard M. Nixon. Here he is waiting to be introduced at a campaign rally, taking a look around at Chicago O'Hare airport military installation

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