February 3, 2020
Region 2 British Import;
For an alternative screen look at political corruption (and one, appropriately, less whimsically sanguine), here’s one I’ve just taken a flying leap at: the two-disc Brit release of Charles Ferguson’s four-hour, 21-minute documentary on what at least used to be the American Presidency’s most scandalous administration.
Originally broadcast last year on the History Channel, I regretfully elected to miss Watergate at the time because that network’s barrage of commercial interruptions makes long docs impossible to enjoy and arduous to record when you’re hitting the pause button every few minutes. But I outsmarted myself: Of all docs not to get an American release even on DVD, here’s one of the most dunderheaded recent insults — inexcusable, I’d say, unless there were some kind of rights or interviewee stipulations involved. To be sure, this six-part epic, which overcomes, for the most part, its inclusion of mostly unfortunate live reenactments, is currently available for viewing in segments on Amazon Prime. But even beyond physical media enthusiasts, I suspect that any true Watergate junkie wants to, in effect, “hold G. Gordon Liddy in his hand” (and preferably — assuming heavy rubber gloves and industrial strength disinfectant are donned — by the chimes).
Most people these days know the story via Alan J. Pakula’s all-timer All the President’s Men — adapted from the monster bestseller whose springboard was the Washington Post reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. As with the book, that film’s narrative begins with the Jun 17, 1972, break-in of the Democratic National Committee Headquarters in Washington D.C.’s Watergate office building, right next door to where I worked for many years. In wider truth — as, say, J. Anthony Lukas’s later volume Nightmare more fully chronicles the full horrors from their origins — the promiscuous lawbreaking of the Nixon Administration began much earlier with formation of the co-equally sinister and hapless “Plumbers Unit.” These cowboy break-in artists were given a green light in 1971 to plug “leaks” after Rand Corporation Employee Daniel Ellsberg gave The New York Times a copy of the massive Pentagon Papers, the official Department of Defense history that ended up exposing the lies and self-deceptions that got us into the Vietnam War.
Though this amusing morsel isn’t mentioned in the documentary, the first Times story appeared and shared the front page with the previous day’s White House wedding of first daughter Tricia Nixon. You can just imagine the president on Sunday morning in his bathrobe, tie shoes and opening minutes of his 5-o’clock shadow munching on leftover caviar and warmly popping open the paper to read happy news. Instead, what he saw almost made him need a Heimlich Maneuver once it was explained to him that no matter how bad the Papers made LBJ look (his initial gleeful impression) they would make the presidency look weak to foreign leaders. It was then apoplexy time — later, the secret White House tapes proved this — and the saga began for the public with the DNC caper, long before anyone but a very few knew that the Plumbers had previously rifled Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office.
In this kind of documentary, access is nearly everything, and Ferguson doesn’t miss filming too many germane parties of those still alive (a few have passed on since he had the good fortune to get to them). Henry Kissinger isn’t here, but his Nixon toady-ism is on full display thanks to the White House tapes, which, as is true in most Watergate docs, get the workout they deserve. From the reportorial point of view, Woodward and Bernstein (especially) are obviously the horses with the standout mouths, but we also have Dan Rather (who had major dust-ups with Nixon as well) Lesley Stahl and writer Richard Reeves.
From the White House, there’s former White House lawyer-turned- beans-spiller John Dean, who’s enjoyed a robust cottage industry contributing to Watergate literature — also Hugh Sloan (the Committee to Re-Elect the President treasurer played by Stephen Collins in the ATPM movie) and the ever-entertaining onetime speech scribe and even presidential candidate Pat Buchanan, whose reactionary comments and books many years later finally made him radioactive for TV broadcasts after a long career on Crossfire and The McLaughlin Group .
We also get Ellsberg and fellow WH snoop victim Morton Halperin; lawyers Richard Ben-Veniste and Jill-Wine Banks (she’s still ubiquitous today on MSNBC); the late William Ruckelshaus, a key player and even superstar in Nixon’s folkloric Saturday Night Massacre of the appointed special prosecutor’s staff; and straight-shooting former members of Congress Elizabeth Holzman (also a TV presence these Impeachment days), Pete McCloskey and Lowell Weicker (who later became Republican governor of Connecticut). For more than 40 years, my best friend and I have had a running gag centered on our crowning of Weicker as our all-time champ when it came to expressing rightful indignation, even against his own party. My favorite, which was captured on a series of four or five LP vinyls of the Hearings released at time (I of course bought them all), where Weicker sits there listening to counsel/presidential assistant John Ehrlichman smugly defending White House behavior and then beginning his response with a supremely hacked-off “Do you mean to tell me …?”
Of those deceased or unwilling to participate, the archives — and someone should really try to restore some semblance of color values back to this transcendent footage — hardly ignore other key principles: Ehrlichman; WH Chief of Staff Bob Haldeman; Liddy (who initially dreamed up schemes that proved to be too much for even the Nixon WH’s worst conspirators; fired Special Prosecutor I Archibald Cox; and Mark Felt — the last much later revealed before his death to have been Woodward and Bernstein’s “Deep Throat” human roadmap to the crimes and their cover-ups. Watergate doesn’t shy away from conceding that Felt’s motives were as much score-settlingly personal as altruistic; he was angry at having been passed over as the new FBI director in favor of L. Patrick Gray after J. Edgar Hoover’s sudden death after an FBI leadership that practically stretched back to the Crusades. Felt could not possibly have been a worse choice, given the well-known story of Gray burning Watergate evidence in his Connecticut home’s fireplace. (At the very end, the doc also takes a surprise dig at John Dean, whose rep these days is one of someone who, in general, redeemed his image.)
I mentioned the re-enactments, which are always a slippery slope to be avoided, though Alex Gibney did pull off the conceit with the redheaded actress (Wrenn Schmidt) who played the high-end call girl in Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer, in which she delivered, verbatim, testimony she gave to prosecutors after that political reformer got busted. Similarly, the dialogue read by Watergate’s actors is taken right from the WH tapes (which helps), but the casting isn’t always spot-on. Crucially, the actor playing Nixon (Douglas Hodge) isn’t bad and even bears a passing physically resemblance — but the poor guy who plays Kissinger (off of mercy, I won’t even mention his name) isn’t even on the planet where the ballpark sits. Whatever you want to say about Kissinger, his image was fairly weighty, but this version here comes off as some little worm who just finished grad school. What the role needs is an actor who can credibly suggest a character who was always looking for someone else’s shapely 40-something knee to squeeze during those times when Jill St. John wasn’t seated next to him at some finger bowl fest in the White House.
Fortunately, most of the re-enacted material is concentrated in the first half, leaving part two to be mostly the same smooth sailing you’d expect from Ferguson, who won what was probably a slam-dunk Oscar in the feature documentary category for 2010’s financial meltdown exposé Inside Job. What’s more, this is atop the second Oscar he didn’t get but I thought he should have for 2007’s No End in Sight (Ferguson lost to another fabulous chronicle of a foreign-war debacle: Gibney’s Afghanistan torture tragedy Taxi to the Dark Side). Watergate isn’t quite on the level of these Ferguson career-makers that preceded but comes close enough. After watching the first segment in isolation (they’re all about 47 minutes, which the commercial-happy History Channel showed in a hour slot), I sat riveted when I resumed and watched the remaining five (about four hours total) in one fell swoop. That’s more than acing what used to be (and in knowledgeable circles, still is) the Harry Cohn “ass” test.