The Writers Guild of America might think of “All in the Family” as the second-greatest sitcom of all time, after “Seinfeld,” but were he alive today, Richard Nixon would almost certainly disagree.
The film, which made the festival rounds earlier this year, is pieced together from over 500 reels of silent, Super 8 footage shot by three of Richard Nixon’s closest aides -- H.R. Haldeman, John D. Ehrlichman and Dwight Chapin -- and seized by the FBI following the Watergate scandal. Director Penny Lane supplements these home movies with more familiar content: archival news reports, interviews and excerpts from Nixon’s infamous White House recordings.
Among the material revisited in the documentary is an audiotaped conversation between the president, Haldeman and Ehrlichman about “All in the Family” from 1971 -– not long after the series premiered on CBS. Nixon was aghast by the “movie,” which he accidentally stumbled upon while searching for a baseball game, not just for denigrating Archie Bunker in favor of his “hippie son-in-law” and “screwball looking daughter,” but especially for its positive portrayal of gay people.
In the episode in question, just the fifth in the series’ run, Archie is shocked to discover one of his best friends is gay. In his retelling, Nixon uses much less polite language, and suggests the show's tolerant attitude presages a decline like that of the Roman Empire. (See clip above.)
More than forty years later, America remains more or less intact while “All in the Family” is widely regarded as one of TV’s all-time great shows. Opinions on “Our Nixon,” however, appear almost as mixed as feelings about “Tricky Dick” himself.
Washington Post critic Hank Stuever praised the “eerie, beautiful” film, but others have suggested that, despite all its unseen footage, “Our Nixon” fails to shed much new light on its eternally polarizing subject.
At The New York Times, Alessandra Stanley deemed it an “engrossing but somewhat aimless and impressionistic ramble” while TV personality and former Nixon staffer Ben Stein was, perhaps not surprisingly, more critical. In a piece he wrote for the Daily Beast, he called the film an “extremely unbalanced negative portrait of a man who did the ultimate that any man can do – make peace among men.”
“Our Nixon” arrives as CNN is aggressively getting into the political documentary game. Earlier this week, the cable news network announced plans for a feature-length project about Hillary Rodham Clinton. To be directed by Charles Ferguson, whose credits include “No End In Sight: The American Occupation of Iraq” and the Oscar-winning “Inside Job,” about the causes of the 2008 financial crisis, it will be released in theaters before a broadcast on CNN sometime in 2014.