Movie News & Reviews

Buzzed-about film 'Our Nixon' sprang from UK law professor's curiosity

President Nixon mingled with locals during his landmark trip to China in 1972, two years before scandal undid his presidency.
President Nixon mingled with locals during his landmark trip to China in 1972, two years before scandal undid his presidency.

Brian L. Frye was teaching film at Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass., in 2002 when a colleague told him about a little treasure trove.

"In addition to being a professor, he did film preservation for the National Archives," Frye say of his coworker, William Brand. "He told me the project that he was working on was these Nixon staff super 8 films. It was this wonderful combination of personal and public, and I was really interested in them at the time.

"He showed me a couple of reels while he was working on them, and I thought this would be a great collection to make a movie from."

At that time, though, the National Archives was only preserving the 35 hours of film, not making them available for public viewing. And the cost to make a version that Frye could work with was prohibitive.

Fast-forward a decade. Frye, 38, now an assistant law professor at the University of Kentucky, has used the National Archives footage to make a movie with director Penny Lane.

The film, Our Nixon, is getting national attention, including a scheduled airing next week on CNN.

But first, Lexingtonians will get a chance to see it Thursday in a screening at the Kentucky Theatre to benefit Friends of the Kentucky Theatre, a group dedicated to preservation and renovation of the theater.

To Frye, the interest in the film is different from other peeks inside the administration of Richard M. Nixon, the only U.S. president to resign from the office. Nixon left the White House on Aug. 9, 1974, in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal. Several of his re-election campaign staffers broke into the Democratic National Committee headquarters, and the administration went to great lengths to cover it up.

The films that Frye and Lane worked from were home movies shot by Nixon's chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman; John Ehrlichman, assistant to the president for domestic affairs; and deputy assistant Dwight Chapin, all of whom went to prison for their roles in Watergate. The silent footage is combined with audio from Nixon's secret White House tapes and archival news and interview clips.

"The history of the Nixon White House has been done to death," Frye says. "The goal of the film was to think about who the people were who worked for the president, why they chose to do what they did, what led them to want to work for the president, what led them to do the criminal things that they did, and how did they understand their own relationship to the power, as it was.

"If there is a revelation, ... the revelation we were interested in was that Haldeman, Ehrlichman and Chapin were human beings who made bad decisions and did things they shouldn't have done, but they did them for human reasons, and it's worth trying to understand why they did these things."

It was six years after Frye's initial encounter with the films that he met Lane and discussed the footage.

"Her comment to me was, 'If you don't make this movie, I'm going to make it,'" Frye said.

So they began to collaborate on the film, which was no small feat or expense. Their first move was to have the National Archives' reels transferred to video, which initially cost $18,000, Frye said.

"That was essentially sight unseen," Frye said. "We didn't know what we were getting when we initially invested in the project."

That price tag ballooned to more than $25,000 when the Archives received a donation of higher-quality originals.

With the video transfer in hand, the duo, who were briefly married, went to the Yaddo artist community in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., to watch the film and begin work. It was there that they realized that they had the story of the men and their relationships to Nixon, which grew increasingly distant as the scandal went on, Frye said.

The subject matter played into Frye's dual interests in film and the law.

Frye studied film and philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley, and the San Francisco Art Institute. He said he went into law "looking for something new and interesting to do," with the recognition that arts institutions often have limited comprehension of the law, and lawyers often don't understand arts groups well.

Frye studied law at Georgetown University and New York University, where he received his degree, and he came to Kentucky after his study of turn-of-the-20th century Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan, a Boyle County native, introduced him to the commonwealth.

At UK, Frye lectures on topics including intellectual property and not-for-profit organizations, and he has been part of an effort to launch Lawyers for the Arts, a group to help arts groups in legal matters.

But he admits that for the past few months, Our Nixon has distracted him from his legal work.

The movie, which runs an hour and 25 minutes, is making the film-festival circuit and getting buzz as one of this year's must-see documentaries. In a review last week, the Los Angeles Times called Our Nixon "a haunting, thoroughly evocative ride." Variety called it "brisk, eye-opening" and a "triumph of editing."

The big news has been the film's acquisition by CNN's film division. The cable network will broadcast it for the first time at 9 p.m. Aug. 1.

"That's totally bizarre, to see it on the schedule," says Frye, who is credited as a producer of the film. "I just keep pinching myself that CNN is showing my film."

Cinedigm has acquired the film for theatrical release.

"Hopefully the film connects with audiences," Frye says. He is working on another archival film project now, although he declined to elaborate on the subject.


'Our Nixon'

What: Documentary made of archival home movies by members of President Richard M. Nixon's staff.

When: 7 p.m. July 25

Where: Kentucky Theatre, 214 E. Main St.

Tickets: $19.99. Available in advance at Proceeds benefit the Friends of the Kentucky Theatre.

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