It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
Early in "Our Nixon", Penny Lane's CNN documentary about the only U.S. president to resign in disgrace, a witness describes the scandal-plagued administration as "a brilliantly lighted, badly run television show." Lane seems to have taken that quote as artistic inspiration of sorts. Her nonfiction look at Richard Milhous Nixon's rise and fall often plays like a mortifying companion to the Nixon-period sitcom "The Wonder Years." The movie stitches bits of video and audio into an collage that turns the president and his staff into a cast of tragic-comic bumblers whose paranoia and vindictiveness bring about their downfall. It even starts with a roll call of major players ("RICHARD NIXON AS THE PRESIDENT", "DOMESTIC AFFAIR ADVISOR JOHN ERLICHMAN") scored to, of all things, the Tracy Ullman cover version of "They Don't Know About Us." Brace yourself for a very special episode.
This is, to put it mildly, not your typical, information-delivery documentary. If you don't go into "Our Nixon" knowing a bit about Nixon, his policies, his temperament, his staff, his enemies, and the details of the Watergate break-in and coverup, you won't gain a clear picture of what happened without consulting outside other sources. That seems to be OK with Lane, who told RogerEbert.com that she wanted to present "modest little sliver of a big story we all know already."
On that count, "Our Nixon" is a success—even though its style is not as strikingly original as advance publicity suggested, and there are points where, even though it's striving to be a Rorschach test, you can sense the filmmakers juxtaposing images, sounds and (sometimes too-cutesy) pop tunes to suggest what certain inkblots represent, and how we ought to feel about them. Treating never-before seen home movies by Nixon White House insiders as a visual spine for its tale, parts of the movie have the urgent but quirky rhythms of a Michael Moore or Oliver Stone montage; other stretches are reminiscent of "The Agony and Ecstasy of Phil Spector," the little-seen but critically acclaimed 2009 Vikram Jayanti documentary that scored interviews and trial footage with Wall of Sound tunes.
"Our Nixon" seems to be more interested in evoking emotional than intellectual responses. It draws our attention away from the big picture and refocuses it on the main players' personalities, and on the Watergate era's perverse, dread-soaked atmosphere. Its best quality is its willingness to paint its key players as people, not villains or types. Rather than excuse or soft-pedal their bad deeds, this approach makes them seem more comprehensible and real—like people we might know, but with power.