Review: Watergate, Or How We Learned to Stop an Out of Control President (2018, Charles Ferguson)

Watergate remains the defining political scandal in American history, endlessly milked for books, movies, cartoon caricatures and political analogies while Teapot Dome and Iran-Contra gather dust in the minds of history buffs. It’s easy to see why: the bizarre cast, the high drama of the televised Senate hearings, the near-daily shocks and bombshells, a public primed by Vietnam and the Civil Rights Movement to mistrust its government (while still naive enough to be shocked by presidential misdeeds), and most of all, the self-destructive, strangely Shakespearean villain Richard Nixon, who with each new revelation becomes more calculatingpathetic, ghastly and evil than his contemporaries ever dreamed. Naturally, living under a deranged, criminal president who explicitly models himself on Nixon makes it depressingly timely.

Surprisingly then, it’s been decades since the last substantial Watergate documentary. The gold standard remains Mick Gold and Fred Emery’s colossal 1994 work for the BBC, which interviews dozens of participants (most of whom have since died) and explores every conceivable angle of the scandal, at turns absorbing and exhausting. Since then, despite the continuing glut of Nixoniana, very little. Last year, ABC’s 20/20 ran a two hour Watergate special which leans heavily on recycled interviews and clips from All the President’s Men. It was overshadowed by Leon Neyfakh’s impressive Slate podcast Slow Burn, which immersively recreates the scandal’s cultural and political impact (though it’s often light on recounting Nixon’s actual misdeeds).

Fortunately, Watergate, Or: How We Learned to Stop an Out of Control President fills that void admirably. Directed by Charles Ferguson (Oscar winner for Inside Job) for the History Channel, it’s infinitely more sober and serious-minded than the trash-and-burn pop history docs populating the network these days. Indeed, it’s been screened at several film festivals and received a brief theatrical run last month to qualify it for Oscar contention. Whether it’s the best Watergate documentary comes down to personal taste: I would wager that it’s now the definitive one, as in the one most likely to be seen, watched and shape public perception of the scandal for years.

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Richard Ferguson (left) with Richard Ben-Veniste and Jill Wine-Banks (source)

Running over four hours (History aired it in six one-hour segments), Ferguson’s film is roughly as long as the BBC documentary but more accessible and streamlined. Where Gold and Emery craft an encyclopedic guide to all things Watergate, Ferguson seeks to tell an engaging story, arranging well-trod facts into a lucid, compelling narrative. An historian or Nixon buff can spot the material and events Ferguson leaves out, but that’s down to the filmmaker’s prerogative. All of the essential events, personages and arguments are present, leading to a documentary that’s comprehensive but never dense, breezy but never flippant, familiar yet fresh.

Ferguson never draws explicit comparisons with the current Oval Office occupant; he doesn’t have to. They emerge through archival footage and reenactments of Nixon’s browbeating and insulting the White House press corps, his betrayal and mistreatment of loyal-to-a-fault underlings, his ill-disguised bigotry, petty nose for slights, divisive public rhetoric and insane private rants about nuking North Vietnam and annihilating “treasonous” political rivals. Perhaps most strikingly in how much Nixon, as intelligent, cunning and tortured as Donald Trump is dim, incurious and empty, shares his successor’s emotional fragility, obsessive macho posturing and his propensity for self-destructive flailing that worsens the crises engulfing him.

Nor is Ferguson particularly interested in exploring Nixon’s background, though biographers John Farrell and Richard Reeves are on-hand for the briefest of biographical sketches. Rather, Watergate plunges directly into Nixon’s tumultuous presidency, demonstrating how much Nixon’s neuroses both fed and drew from the Vietnam era’s toxic climate. Not only did Nixon cynically exploit the nation’s political divisions for personal gain, he viewed the anti-war movement, and their supporters in the media and the Democratic Party, as enemies of the state. By extension, there was no difference between National Moratorium protesters, a Weatherman bomber and a liberal congressman critiquing the war: all were enemies. Observing that Nixon’s calculated divisiveness shaped modern politics is shopworn to the point of cliche, yet watching this documentary it’s impossible to avoid.

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Nixon Meets the Hippies

Thus Watergate shows Nixon scheming from the start, from his campaign to discredit Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg to John Ehrlichman’s blackmailing gay activist David Mixner (“We know everything about you!” Mixner recounts Ehrlichman telling him). This thuggishness spawned the Huston Plan (an abortive scheme to consolidate intelligence through the White House), then the Plumbers, which made Watergate inevitable. Pat Buchanan and John Dean demonstrate (Buchanan with scalding, unrepentant candor, Dean with self-justifying smarminess) how this siege mentality infected everything the White House touched. The development from verbal abusiveness to crime and repression proves frighteningly organic: when you reach the point that nutcases like Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy seem like upstanding operatives, you’ve clearly lost touch with reality.

Much of the material Ferguson presents is familiar enough. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein recount the story of their Washington Post investigation of Watergate for the millionth time, still showing remarkable enthusiasm and pride in their achievement. Yet Nixon’s war against the media comes off more strongly in Dan Rather’s recounting of his time as White House correspondent; his televised jousting matches with the President turned him into a household name and starkly demonstrated Nixon’s own thin-skinned pettiness. Or in other tidbits, like Daniel Schorr reading the newly-discovered Enemies List on live television…only to discover his own name among Nixon’s opponents.

Really, the only serious misstep comes in Ferguson staging dramatized reenactments of the Nixon tapes. As Nixon, Douglas Hodge, a veteran British stage and TV actor (Penny Dreadful, The Night Manager) sweats, blusters and rages without convincing us that he’s Nixon. Others fare even worse: Elliot Levey’s Kissinger consists of thick glasses and an odd accent, while Will Keen’s Ehrlichman is a weirdly shrill Edward G. Robinson impersonator. It’s understandable that Ferguson wanted to present the tapes in a more dynamic fashion than the usual “run audio over illustrations and file photos” approach, yet the odd casting and melodramatic staging undercut Watergate‘s otherwise measured handling of its subject.

John Dean

Still, the further along Watergate moves, the fewer the reenactments become and the more propulsive the pace grows: by the third episode, when the Senate hearings begin and the cover-up begins to unravel, it takes on the contours of a thriller. He juggles the various plot lines with commendable skill: Archibald Cox’s investigation is well-established long before he takes center stage (with William Ruckelshaus, Jill Wine-Banks and Richard Ben-Veniste providing caustic comment on Nixon’s hindrance to their efforts). Thus as time elapses, all the threads come together, gaining it an impressive momentum that makes the denouement more satisfying.

Ferguson also enjoys puncturing the scandal’s mythology. He repeatedly undercuts John Dean’s weaselly defenses with other interviewers casting him as a rat fink. (There’s also a priceless caption towards the end reading: “John Dean made a career out of Watergate.”) Or Lowell Weicker, the Ervin Committee’s sole surviving member, complaining about his colleague Howard Baker feeding information to the White House. And that Mark Felt, the FBI official who served as Bob Woodward’s “Deep Throat,” was a rough-necked hippie-puncher who turned on Nixon for passing him over for the Directorship. (This last should be obvious, except last year’s 20/20 documentary features Felt’s daughter calling him a “superhero” without challenge or comment.)

And the scandal’s most powerful moments are there, for Nixon buffs to relish and newcomers to marvel at anew. Nixon’s “I am not a crook” speech gets enough time and play to emphasize how unhinged a moment it was: far from a response from hostile reporters, it was a Nixonian meltdown during a softball press briefing. The segment on the Saturday Night Massacre balances the confrontation with Cox with the Yom Kippur War, arguing that the latter conflict affected Nixon’s judgment. There’s also new material, such as audio recordings of the Supreme Court’s arguments over United States vs. Nixon, which provide more bracing content.

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Elizabeth Holtzman

The House impeachment hearings, often footnoted (John Farrell’s recent book grants them a single paragraph), receive significant breadth, with Elizabeth Holtzman providing several engaging interviews about the Judiciary Committee’s efforts to ensure a nonpartisan investigation. Holtzman repeatedly takes center stage – there’s excellent footage of her browbeating Gerald Ford over his pardoning Nixon – but the docu gives ample time to Peter Rodino, the Committee’s affable chairman, the President’s blustering defenders, and Barbara Jordan’s remarkable speech denouncing the President.

What lessons does Ferguson ask us to draw from Watergate? The participants themselves aren’t sure: perhaps it’s that “power corrupts,” others that the System works if properly applied and not abused by power-hungry sociopaths who will tolerate all manner of criminal madness to pass tax cuts and stomp on minorities. But Holtzman offers the most cynical take: though dozens of Nixon aides received indictments, Nixon not only emerged unscathed but received a preemptive pardon. Thus, the President of the United States remains above the law and there’s not a damn thing we can do about it. Sadly, she seems more prescient than Carl Bernstein’s schoolboy awe that checks and balances ultimately prevail.

One thing Watergate shares with Slow Burn, and the better segments of the BBC documentary, is that no one living through Watergate had any clue how it would end; how it struck different observers as a bottomless, soul-sucking nightmare, an inscrutable thicket of names, dates and details, or even perverse fun (there’s file footage of Gore Vidal gushing over how much he’s enjoying the erosion of democracy). We see all of that reflected in our current moment, albeit amplified by 24 hour news cycles and a polarized political culture that accepts Nixonian division as the norm. If anything I envy the Gore Vidals of the world who can find someone like Nixon, or his modern counterpart, a figure of fun rather than the embodiment of everything foul and evil in America.

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Perhaps that’s the most optimistic lesson to draw from Ferguson’s Watergate; this, too, shall pass. Of course, it doesn’t mean we should be complacent, or that things won’t be broken beyond repair before it does. It takes a lot to destroy a President, even one who seems determined to dig their own political grave. We can only hope that the lessons of the past might be applied constructively rather than ignored…but I’m not holding my breath.

Watergate is currently available for free viewing through the History Channel’s website; it’s also available for purchase through Amazon, Google Play and iTunes. It comes highly recommended by your resident Nixon buff.