Ever see a film without any reviews on Rotten Tomatoes? I have. It’s called Dad’s in Heaven With Nixon (2010), and since RT hasn’t stepped up, I’ll do it. I liked it, but it had issues.
This documentary film markets itself as a movie about autism, but this turns out to be a slight bait-and-switch (now us autism families know how fundamentalist Christian moviegoers feel about “family” films!) because the film is really about the Murray family. I regret to say that we’re not talking about Bill’s or Andy’s or Patty’s…instead, it’s about the descendants of T.E. Murray, a man who apparently invented or at least patented all kinds of electrical devices, which he and Thomas Edison installed around half the Eastern Seaboard. But the movie concerns itself more with T.E. Murray’s grandson and great-grandson and their difficulties overcoming disabilities – and each other.
In the opening minutes, we learn that Chris was born with scarlet in his whites of his eyes, the kind of, ahem, red flag that would alarm any parent. As the mom explains in current-day interviews, she felt so guilty – what had she done during the pregnancy to cause such a traumatic birth? We learn that he didn’t walk until 18 months, wasn’t speaking at the age of four. In those first 20 minutes, the film pushes all the autism buttons, drawing out deep empathy and understanding from all us families who have endured something similar.
Then…Chris learns to speak. We’re not actually told what age that occurs; that feels like an intentional omission, so as not to lose too much of the audience. We are told that after he began speaking, his father somewhat checked out of his life, or as his mother narrates, “he couldn’t deal with him.” Us autism families understand that even after communication is established, a child on the spectrum will have 100 other problems of adjustment, and yes, it does seem sad that Chris’s father can’t be bothered with any of these. The film doesn’t ask: in the Mad Men era, how many working dads, supporting stay-at-home moms, were really bothering to “share feelings” with their kids? Instead, the film takes the somewhat surprising turn of taking us into the father’s life and hardships. By the mid-1970s, his bipolar disorder has become so extreme that he can no longer work. He continues to fail to relate to his autistic son, and then he dies.
The film then encourages us to believe that Chris’s way of working through his grief over his father’s passing is to paint. That feels like a rather convenient narrative device, partly because Chris never says anything to support that, partly because his dozens of paintings have nothing to do with his father, and partly because it serves two conspicuous needs: to make the film’s last half-hour feel like a consequence of the first hour, and to increase the symbolic (and thus, monetary) value of Chris’s art.
I already covered many of the rebuttals to last month’s New York Times’ “The Kids Who Beat Autism”; a common theme was that the Times should have mentioned that many of these “cures” are only for parents who can afford them. A similar myopia afflicts Dad’s in Heaven with Nixon, which reeks of entitlement without discussing it. Not every family has color film from the 50s (and B&W film from a lot earlier), not every family grew up in mansions in the Hamptons, and not every family gets to hang out with Gloria Vanderbilt, who in turn introduces Chris’ art to the wider art world, where it does…fairly well. So the film’s intended takeaway is basically to add Chris Murray’s name to the Temple Grandins and the other autistic role models who prove that we’re better with them than without them…without ever mentioning the sky’s-the-limit medical care Chris must have had to get him to that point.
It’s strange to think that Chris had his first gallery show in the early 90s, but that this film took almost 20 more years to occur…why the wait? Well, there are the prosaic reasons: perhaps Mom won’t be with us much longer; digital video has become cheaper; thanks to Netflix and Michael Moore and others, there’s now at least a limited market for almost any professional-looking documentary, especially (and this is much more true than it was 20 years ago) for something that can be marketed as autism-related. But there’s also something that feels very…post-2000s Saturday Night Live about the whole enterprise. Tom Murray, Chris’s brother and the film’s director, could have hired a real documentarian, but he seemed to think, hey, I can do it, and on camera he projects a very Alec-Baldwin-in-30-Rock, New York, I-know-what-I’m-doing-so-shut-up kind of persona. More than that, in his interviews that are so crucial to this film, Chris, with his raspy staccato voice, looks and acts almost exactly like Fred Armisen would look if he were playing an autistic character. I mean, his resemblance to Armisen is actually uncanny.
It almost seems like Tom was watching Armisen on SNL and said, well, if this guy can be famous, let’s put my brother on camera, and who knows, maybe he’ll turn me into a big filmmaker. If you met Tom in person, it seems like you’d never quite stop smelling his cologne named CashGrabia.
The movie is fine. Chris’s art is quite beautiful, and yes, he’s something of an inspiration. The title is a nice touch, a reference to Chris’s conception of where his father is now, arguing with a President he (the dad) hated. Of course, it’s not all that clear that Chris would have approved of that title, or of being filmed so much, or of the film at all, if his consent were more informed. In some future decade, we may look back on depictions of people like Chris – and child actors, who legally also can’t consent the way that non-disabled adults can – as icky or even exploitative, something that should be avoided or done with computers. File Dad’s in Heaven With Nixon in the early 2010s time capsule: a period of autism anxiety, SNL inspiration, documentary over-enabling, and the 1% still unconsciously presuming they can speak for all of us without caveats.