Political junkies and American history enthusiasts will gobble up all four hours and twenty minutes of director Charles Ferguson’s Watergate, a comprehensive overview of the most high profile governmental scandal of the twentieth century. A rigorous outlining of events leading up to the unceremonious resignation of Richard Nixon from the office of the President of the United States, Watergate navigates the sticky, muddy, and convoluted waters of a political conspiracy that ran deeper with every new revelation, development, and double cross. There hasn’t been a (concretely provable) instance of presidential corruption quite like Watergate, and while it’s all a bit dry and straightforward, there hasn’t been a documentary about the subject quite like Ferguson’s.
Ferguson (Inside Job, Time to Choose) begins Watergate by explaining in great detail everything that came before a bunch of former law enforcement officers and ex-CIA operatives broke into the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the titular hotel and office complex under the orders of the President of the United States. American morale was suffering towards the end of the 1960s. President Johnson escalated the war effort in Vietnam instead of scaling things back. Robert Kennedy had been murdered, and his replacement for the Democratic nomination raised the ire of those protesting the ongoing war overseas. Former Vice President Nixon, who previously had failed bids to become president and the governor of California, was seen by many as a beacon of hope when he was elected to the country’s top leadership position in 1969. But before news of Nixon’s underhanded and illegal political maneuvering came to light, the luster had already worn off his star quite a bit. Promises were made and never kept, but the Democrats couldn’t come up with a viable candidate to run against Nixon’s reelection campaign. A big part of the Democrats failure was due to the fact that Nixon and his cronies – via the information they had been secretly gathering on their opponents – had basically handpicked the person he was running against without his detractors knowing what had happened.
If some of this sounds familiar and eerily reminiscent of current events, you’re not alone. Ferguson has subtitled Watergate, “Or How We Learned to Stop an Out of Control President.” But the overall direct line between Nixon’s tactics and those employed by Donald Trump today isn’t the main concern for Ferguson, who prefers to use his film to rigorously document how abuses of power are enabled and enacted and to lightly psychoanalyse Nixon as an angry man who spent more time worrying about the actions of his enemies (both real and imagined) and staying in office than the needs of the American people. Watergate is a step-by-step walkthrough of one of the most widely covered and documented news stories of all time, and as such there’s no shortage of material Ferguson can pull from to support his narrative threads.
There’s an overwhelming amount of archival interviews, courtroom proceedings, senate hearings, and broadcast news footage throughout Watergate, but also plenty of new sit-downs with those who lived through the era on both sides of the case. Newscaster and then White House correspondent Dan Rather, activist David Mixner, former Nixon speechwriter Pat Buchanan (who takes credit for the current war on the media via the work he did with the president), White House counsel John Dean (who gives the best interviews, in both present day and during the Watergate hearings) Washington Post journalists Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, late lawmaker John McCain, and various senators and FBI investigators share their thoughts and feelings on what went down. With a couple of notable, high profile exceptions who declined to be interviewed and those who passed away in the decades since, Watergate puts forth the best effort yet to paint a comprehensive, multifaceted picture of a complicated scandal by making sure each moving part, player, and deception is outlined in explicit detail, no matter how long it takes.
But as anyone familiar with Watergate already knows, Nixon was ultimately undone by his own desire to have every conversation in the Oval Office secretly recorded. The thousands of hours of tapes recorded by the Nixon White House were the stuff of legends, and historians and archivists have only now started to get a handle on everything that was captured. At the time, Nixon sought to block the use of the tapes against him, citing issues of national security and the existence of sensitive materials that had no bearing on the case of the Watergate break-in. A large portion of Watergate’s second half is built around the government’s fight to get the undoctored, unedited, and unaltered tapes released and the slippery means that Nixon employed in a shallow bid to appear transparent. The damning tapes pertaining to Watergate eventually made their way into the public consciousness, and Ferguson puts them to good use in his film.
Ferguson stages word for word reenactments of events captured on the tapes with actors playing the infamous real life counterparts. The performances are all very good, especially Douglas Hodge as Nixon, John Hopkins as H.R. Haldeman, and Elliot Levey as Henry Kissinger, but the decision Ferguson makes to enter many of these reenactments by playing a snippet of the real tapes before repeating the line already spoken on them is redundant, unnecessary, and distracting, but at least he doesn’t start all of the actors’ scenes in that manner; just most of them.
Ferguson also makes a few other odd choices along the way. He narrates throughout Watergate in a curiously passionless manner akin to an awkward high schooler giving a well written oral presentation to their classmates. And in case one couldn’t tell from its elephantine running time, Watergate is an indulgent film where Ferguson leaves in huge swaths of testimonies and procedural hearings that play out with few edits. There’s a lot here that could be scaled back, but those who prefer their documentaries to be comprehensive and detail oriented rather than skimming overviews will find much to admire in Ferguson’s slow cinema approach to history.
The appeal of Watergate as a film is admittedly niche, but as a lengthy, single volume document of one of history’s darkest political moments and a subtly cautionary tale for modern audiences, Ferguson’s approach works nicely. It’s a wonderful oral history of political criminality writ large and publically, and one could learn a lot from this even if they think they have a handle on everything that happened at the time. There’s not much new to uncover in Watergate, but it’s an important reminder to never forget what it all meant.
Watergate opens on Friday, June 14, 2019 at The Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema in Toronto. It will screen in two parts back-to-back each night.
Check out the trailer for Watergate: