Friday A/V Club: Woody Allen's Lost Nixon Movie

A mockumentary that PBS wouldn't air


Before you make that joke, think about whether it has already occurred to everyone else.

Forty years ago today, Richard Nixon announced that he would resign as president of the United States. In honor of that happy occasion, I'm posting a peculiar film that Woody Allen made for public television in 1971, called Men of Crisis: The Harvey Wallinger Story. The mockumentary mixes real footage of Nixon and other pols with material starring Allen as "Harvey Wallinger," a name whose resemblace to "Henry Kissinger" is no coincidence. Allen threw the movie together in just a few weeks, and it shows; the topical humor here is hit-and-miss. But the biggest gag isn't really political at all. It's the fact that Woody Allen plays Henry Kissinger as a stock Woody Allen character, all nebbishy and neurotic.

Note: I said Allen made this for public television. I didn't say public television broadcast it. As a 1997 article in The New York Times reports, higher-ups in the network

sent messages to their member stations saying that while PBS would not distribute the film, the stations were free to broadcast it. But they cautioned that there might be legal issues involved that could jeopardize the stations' licenses. These included equal-time regulations for other Presidential candidates, as well for people like Mrs. Nixon who were portrayed critically in the film.

Others, however, looked at this reasoning as a smoke screen.

"They were afraid to kill it because they'd look chicken," said [former WNET president James] Day. "But they didn't want to upset the politicians and get their money cut." At the time, public television was especially nervous about losing its Government support, which Nixon had vowed to cut.

Nixon did indeed threaten the Corporation for Public Broadcasting's funding in 1971. As is usually the case in such clashes, his aim wasn't really to reduce the broadcasters' subsidies so much as it was to use the threat of reducing their subsidies to whip them into line. As the reaction to Allen's film shows, Nixon's strategy worked.

For ages it has been just about impossible to see this movie, but it showed up on YouTube last month—and rapidly disappeared. Now it has been uploaded again. Watch it while you can:

Bonus link: If that's what happened when public broadcasters had to answer to Richard Nixon, what do you suppose happened when public broadcasters had to answer to George Wallace?

(For past installments of the Friday A/V Club, go here.)