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For Filmmakers, Watergate Is the Gift That Keeps on Giving

President Nixon at his desk in the White House in June 1972, the month that a break-in at the Watergate complex in Washington unleashed a protracted political scandal.
President Nixon at his desk in the White House in June 1972, the month that a break-in at the Watergate complex in Washington unleashed a protracted political scandal. Photo: National Archives and Records Administration

When director Charles Ferguson set out to make a comprehensive documentary on the Watergate political scandal, he decided not to allude to current-day Washington. “Watergate,” his six-episode film that airs on the History Channel Nov. 2-4, depicts Richard M. Nixon, America’s 37th president, under investigation, lashing out at the media, the Justice Department and the FBI.

“I felt that the best way that a treatment of Watergate could help people think about the current situation was simply to show what really happened then,” Mr. Ferguson said. His documentary looks back at events that began with the June 1972 break-in at Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate complex in Washington. The fallout led to Nixon’s resignation in August 1974.

Mr. Ferguson won an Oscar for his 2010 doc, “Inside Job,” about the 2008 economic crisis. For “Watergate, or: How We Learned To Stop an Out of Control President,” he assembled hours of vintage footage and new interviews with key players.

Mr. Ferguson also had to decide how to present information from more than 3,000 hours of President Nixon’s once-secret office tape-recordings. The audio quality is poor and the President and his men frequently rambled. Mr. Ferguson edited transcripts of the recordings for length and clarity, without adding or changing words. Then he had actors dramatize them. Douglas Hodge, a Tony Award-winning British actor who once played Willy Wonka in a stage musical, portrays President Nixon. The small cast filmed scenes in a replica of the Oval Office built on an abandoned air base in England.

 For his documentary, ‘Watergate’ director Charles Ferguson enlisted actors to dramatize conversations from the once-secret Nixon office tape recordings.
For his documentary, ‘Watergate’ director Charles Ferguson enlisted actors to dramatize conversations from the once-secret Nixon office tape recordings. Photo: Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images

“I could have played the tapes themselves, but that would have inflicted a great deal of pain upon the audience,” Mr. Ferguson says.

Watergate dramatizations are nothing new. Like Abraham Lincoln and Elvis Presley, Richard Nixon has become a recurring on-screen character, and the Watergate scandal an American fable. Below, a look at how each decade has cast a new cinematic light on the subject.

1970s: What Just Happened?

“All the President’s Men” (1976)

Long before the book and film about the scandal, Robert Redford thought the principal drama in Watergate was the investigation by Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. While the reporters were working on the 1974 book that became the basis of the film, Mr. Redford suggested that they make themselves the main characters. Envisioning “All the President’s Men,” as a detective-story film, Mr. Redford enlisted William Goldman (”Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”) to write the Oscar-winning screenplay. The 1976 film, starring Mr. Redford and Dustin Hoffman as the reporters, inspired a generation of journalists.

What We Learned: How the names in the news, such as White House Counsel John Dean, Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman and political operative Donald Segretti, all fit together. And how the burglary was among a series of misdeeds by CREEP, the Committee to Re-Elect the President.

Dustin Hoffman, left, and Robert Redford, play reporters pursuing the story in ‘All the President’s Men.’
Dustin Hoffman, left, and Robert Redford, play reporters pursuing the story in ‘All the President’s Men.’ Photo: Everett Collection

1980s: Nixon Under Analysis

“Secret Honor” (1984)

Director Robert Altman’s “fictional meditation” aims to reveal the character of Richard Nixon. In a one-man show as the ex-president, actor Philip Baker Hall performs an 87-minute soliloquy. He dictates his fictional memoir into a tape recorder, working his way through a bottle of Chivas Regal, with a loaded revolver on the desk. He reveals that he cooked up Watergate so he could resign and avoid worse catastrophe. He says he had risen to power starting in 1945 as a puppet of an organization called the “Committee of 100,” which demanded that he continue the war in Vietnam indefinitely. It was all to fund mob-connected business interests, including heroin trade with China. Unwilling to sacrifice more American lives, he chose the “secret honor” of resigning in disgrace.

What We Learned: That demons drove President Nixon. This fictional portrait depicts him as delusional, resentful, and power-mad—and the product of hardscrabble roots. He grew up poor in a Quaker family. He lost two brothers to childhood illnesses. He acted, played piano and worked as a teenage carnival barker.

Philip Baker Hall, playing President Nixon, rails before a portrait of Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in ‘Secret Honor.’
Philip Baker Hall, playing President Nixon, rails before a portrait of Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in ‘Secret Honor.’ Photo: Everett Collection

1990s: Watergate Becomes Nostalgia

“Dick” (1999)

Here’s Watergate as a 1970s pop-culture meme, along with purple bell bottoms and Jackson Five singles. “Dick” occasionally parodies “All The President’s Men” directly. Kirsten Dunst and Michelle Williams play ditzy 15-year-olds who witness part of the break-in while sneaking out to send fan mail to teen idol Bobby Sherman. Amid the cover-up, they’re brought into the White House, where Ms. Williams sings Olivia Newton-John into the President’s tape recorder (the 18 minutes famously erased). When they prank-call the Washington Post, they become the secret source known in real-life investigations as “Deep Throat.” The cast includes Dan Hedaya as President Nixon, Harry Shearer as G. Gordon Liddy and Will Ferrell as Bob Woodward.

What We Learned: The comedy is goofy but plays off real events. It provides new explanations for everything from John Dean’s congressional testimony to Nixon’s Soviet arms-control agreement.

Dan Hedaya, center, as Richard Nixon, in “Dick,” a 1999 comedy with a different take on the Watergate scandal.
Dan Hedaya, center, as Richard Nixon, in “Dick,” a 1999 comedy with a different take on the Watergate scandal. Photo: Columbia Pictures/Everett Collec

2000s: Politics as Entertainment

“Frost/Nixon” (2008)

Ron Howard’s film, written by Peter Morgan, takes liberties dramatizing the 1977 interviews of President Nixon by British TV host David Frost. The movie sets up a kind of prizefight between the master manipulator, Frank Langella as Nixon, and the out-of-his-depth entertainer. The ex-president expected puffball questions but Mr. Frost (Michael Sheen) turns the tables, prodding President Nixon to admit he participated in a cover-up and let the country down. In real life, Nixon didn’t confess to a cover-up.

What We Learned: By the 2000s, politics was becoming TV entertainment, and these interviews had helped start that. Mr. Frost made Mr. Nixon a business partner, paying him $600,000 (and, though the film doesn’t mention it, 20% of profits from the interviews).

Michael Sheen, left, as David Frost, proves more than a match for Frank Langella, playing Richard Nixon, during interviews in 2008’s ‘Frost/Nixon.’
Michael Sheen, left, as David Frost, proves more than a match for Frank Langella, playing Richard Nixon, during interviews in 2008’s ‘Frost/Nixon.’ Photo: Universal/Everett Collection

2010s: New Revelations

“Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House” (2017)

Mark Felt, former No. 2 man at the FBI, confessed in 2005 that he was Deep Throat. His story took more than a decade to reach movie screens as a political thriller. Mr. Felt, played by Liam Neeson, is shown as the consummate G-man, in line to become FBI boss. But when Director J. Edgar Hoover dies in 1972, the administration installs loyalist L. Patrick Gray as acting director instead. Mr. Gray and the president’s men pressure Mr. Felt’s team to end its Watergate investigation, leading him to leak information to the press. In a subplot that echoes Mr. Neeson’s role in the 2008 thriller “Taken,” Mr. Felt is searching for his daughter, who has run away to a hippie commune.

What We Learned: The White House had suspected Mr. Felt early on. He leaked information to Time magazine as well as the Washington Post. He also never said “follow the money”—as Deep Throat does in “All the President’s Men.” Whether he brought down the White House by himself is debatable, but the story shows you shouldn’t make enemies of powerful “good guys” who know too much.

Liam Neeson plays the title role of Watergate super source ‘Deep Throat’ in the 2017 movie ‘Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House.’
Liam Neeson plays the title role of Watergate super source ‘Deep Throat’ in the 2017 movie ‘Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House.’ Photo: Sony Pictures/Everett Collection
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