The year is 1971 and President Richard Millhouse Nixon is in the White House, winning the title of Leader of the Free World in 1968 during a campaign where he appealed to what he termed as the "Silent Majority" of Americans who were tired of the social unrest and uncertain foreign affairs under the Democrats, ushered into office with his claim he would solve those issues and make America safe again. But as this documentary illustrates, Nixon is not about making anywhere safe, he is more about making his political opponents look bad in character assassinations which leave him looking far better by comparison. This film, however, is set to expose his corruption...
From the vantage point of the next century, we are in no doubt Nixon was a crook, no matter his famous proclamation "I am not a crook", but as director here Emile De Antonio was keen to promote, plenty of people had their doubts about his integrity even before the Watergate Scandal that ultimately brought him down and forced him to resign. That is a problem when watching this documentary, as the elephant in the room is never addressed, largely thanks to the Republicans' break-in at the Democrats' offices in the Watergate Hotel not having happened yet, and you will seek in vain any indication in this that is what they had in mind for their opponents.
On the other hand, it is clear from this Nixon had already been given quite a length of rope with which to politically hang himself, as De Antonio exposed his methods for gaining power: time and again, the future President resorted to smear campaigns and scapegoating to assist his own position as a paragon of virtue and the greatest hope for America. He did so by attacking the Communists, instrumental in bringing down Alger Hiss which boosted Nixon's profile, yet if you're wondering, who the Hell was Alger Hiss? Then you will have identified another problem, which is that at this remove you need to have made a study of United States politics of the twentieth century to "get it".
And since Watergate is what Tricky Dick will be forever known for, there may be little reason to return to De Antonio, who in his day was one of the leading agitprop documentarians, providing the counterculture with plenty of ammunition in their fight against such matters as the real murderers of John F. Kennedy or the conniving schemes of Senator Joe McCarthy. Nowadays, anyone with a YouTube account can make the wildest claims about what they think is "really going on in the world" and there will always be someone who agrees, mattering little that the claims are completely unsubstantiated, and as the far right began to dominate the conspiracy theory realm works like Millhouse looked like ancient history as far as the way dissent has progressed - or regressed - in the political sphere.
Yet while De Antonio's arrangement of his footage and the occasional talking heads may look crude by modern standards, he nevertheless was carrying an incisive wit to get to the heart of his subjects. That this was subtitled a comedy is less impressive, as there will be nothing much that will prompt a chuckle or two here, with the occasional wry smile at, for example, the exposure of one of Nixon's inspirational speeches as a direct rip-off of Dr Martin Luther King's "I have a dream", but not much more than that. The overall effect is one of desperation: Nixon looks desperate to be admired and desperate for power, while his critics look desperate that anyone, never mind that majority, could have believed him when they had so much evidence that he was a charlatan. If De Antonio had access to the Watergate story, or even the previous cover-up that Nixon had made a deal to prolong the war in Vietnam so he could reap the glory of ending it that was non-existent, he would have had a field day, yet as we see now, there are none so blind as those who refuse to see, and many millions will ignore the major drawbacks they are creating by backing the wrong horse.