Donald J. Trump may be the worst president in America’s 242-year history. But as Watergate reminds us, there’s a precedent for his current, catastrophic reign.
Its subtitle a Kubrickian nod to powers-that-be madness run amok, Watergate, Or: How We Learned to Stop an Out of Control President, is a four-hour, twenty-minute non-fiction history lesson about the scandal that took down our 37th commander-in-chief, Richard Nixon. Directed by Oscar winner Charles Ferguson with the same attention to clear-eyed chronological detail he brought to No End in Sight (about the Iraq War) and Inside Job (about the 2008 financial crisis), the film is short on flash and long on archival material. Using news broadcasts, old photos and footage, and Nixon’s own tape-recorded conversations, it provides a lucid account of the fallout from the June 17, 1972 break-in by five men at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington, D.C.’s Watergate building, which culminated in Nixon’s resignation on August 9, 1974.
And if its debut this Saturday, Sept. 29 at the New York Film Festival (followed by a theatrical release on Oct. 12, and a HISTORY channel premiere on Nov. 2) seems particularly well-timed given our contemporary political climate, that’s hardly accidental.
George Santayana’s 1905 quote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” closes Watergate, and it’s impossible not to read it as a direct warning to a 2018 America grappling with a president whose deceitfulness, ruthlessness and treachery (not to mention unworthiness for the office) is limitless. Nonetheless, that coda is the only overt allusion to the present, as Ferguson otherwise diligently allows his 1970s material to stand on its own—and speak for itself. Speak it does, revealing the intricate means by which a burglary incited a journalistic investigation that led to a congressional and legal inquiry which resulted in the ouster of America’s duly elected leader. Sharp, comprehensive and disinterested in travelling down speculative rabbit holes, it’s an exhaustive timeline of historic incidents that plays as both a cautionary tale about the corrupting nature of power, and a portrait of how democracy only survives serious threats when men and women put the state before themselves.
Ferguson’s one gambit with Watergate is staging dramatic reenactments of Nixon’s famed covert Oval Office recordings, which ultimately served as the smoking-gun proof that helped send him packing. Using transcribed-tape dialogue, and aided by Douglas Hodge’s capable scrunched-face, sweaty performance as Nixon, these scenes are well staged, if a tad alienating—the sound of actors reciting Nixon’s underhanded comments (rife with anti-Semitic and racist barbs) is invariably less powerful than hearing the president’s own voice. Still, given that the alternative would be countless sequences of old audio set to still photographs (or the like), they ably serve their purpose: bringing to life Nixon’s duplicitous, calculated villainy.
There are few bombshells to be found in Watergate, as Ferguson has little interest in presenting his well-known tale in a new light. What he is concerned with, though, is methodically describing the twisty-turny series of events that led to Nixon stepping down. Anyone seeking a psychoanalytic study of Nixon himself will have to turn elsewhere (say, Oliver Stone’s Nixon); aside from briefly explicating how the president’s behavior was fueled by disgust for wealthy good-looking East Coast liberal elites such as John F. Kennedy—a group from which he felt excluded since childhood, and thus deeply resented—there’s no academic probing of the disgraced president’s mind. In its place, Ferguson opts for a meticulous itemization of his guilt: how he deviously manipulated elections, attacked those on his “enemies list,” ordered the break-in as part of a larger campaign to undermine Democratic rivals, and attempted to cover up his conspirators’ (and his own) role in Watergate itself.
Those familiar with this story will recognize the personalities populating its drama. From Committee to Re-Elect the President (CREEP, fittingly) finance counsel G. Gordon Liddy and acting chairman Jeb Stuart Magruder, to special counsel John Ehrlichman and Chief of Staff H.R. “Bob” Haldeman (and his replacement, Alexander Haig), to White House Counsel John Dean and many more, Watergate lays out an overarching indictment of the misconduct and treachery perpetrated by the administration to keep its nefarious deeds secret. As depicted by Ferguson, they’re a bunch of cretinous crooks, and that goes for former Nixon assistant Pat Buchanan as well, here delivering lively, unrepentant commentary about his own efforts to help Nixon evade doom. In the process, he shows his true colors as an amoral scoundrel of the first order.
Dean too discusses his front-and-center participation in the scandal with little regret, presumably because he thinks his subsequent decision to turn on his boss helps absolve him of his considerable wrongdoing. On the other side of the story, meanwhile, are CBS’s Dan Rather and Leslie Stahl, Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, and the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, who recount their own unlikely paths to the truth, which involved covert conversations with Mark “Deep Throat” Felt, intimidating phone calls from Nixon bigwigs, and the encouragement of Post publisher Katherine Graham and editor Ben Bradlee. Also heard from are special prosecutors Richard Ben-Veniste and Jill Wine-Banks, whose loyalty to boss Archibald Cox—eventually the target of Nixon’s ire, in much the same way that Robert Mueller now is with Trump—is second only to their dedication to their mission.
There are relevant messages to be gleaned from Watergate, such as the self-destructive danger (to the president) of firing a special prosecutor, and the amount of damning evidence required to kick a commander-in-chief out of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Most pertinent—and stirring—of all, however, is its depiction of the bipartisanship that eventually drove the impeachment hearings forward. “The best thing I could do from the Republican Party’s point of view was to try and project the Republican Party as being distinct and separate from Richard Nixon,” says Senator (and Watergate Committee member) Lowell Weicker, in one of many late moments that speak to our polarized present political paradigm. In a film awash in such parallels, Weicker and his fellow Republican dissenters’ staunch support of the Watergate inquiry, aided by fearless Democrats like Elizabeth Holtzman, resounds with powerful immediacy. Without ever drawing a direct line between then and now, Ferguson asks: Where are the politicians, on both sides of the aisle, with the ethical backbone, selflessness and courage to do what’s right today, in the face of our grave Trumpian nightmare?