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‘Watergate’ Review: Near-Definitive Doc Looks at Granddaddy of POTUS Scandals

President Nixon seated at his desk, June 23, 1972.

President Richard Nixon, in a scene from the documentary 'Watergate.'

National Archives and Records Administration/History Channel

Here’s how it’s always worked, the traditional go-to method for diving down the barrel of the smoking gun: You film a close-up of reel-to-reel tapes, the rotating wheels moving the magnetic strips through the player’s gates. Maybe you focus on the spindles in the middle of the cassette, turning and turning, as well. You play the grainy, tinny voices of men over the soundtrack, as they discuss payments, political cover-ups, the media and, courtesy of one particularly gruff-sounding gentleman, “the goddamned Jews.” This is how the notorious Nixon White House recordings have always been handled when they’ve been embedded into documentaries on the Seventies, or scandals, or our nation’s 37th President of the United States. You do not usually get actors to dress up as Famous Administration Officials of the Past and play-act the back-and-forth between the commander-in-chief and H.R. “Bob” Haldeman, or Henry Kissinger, or John Dean. It simply isn’t done.

Unless you are Charles Ferguson, a nonfiction filmmakers who usually has a tendency to stick to a Dateline-with-benefits style of docmaking (see: 2007’s No End in Sight, 2010’s Inside Job), and have decided you need something different to break up the talking heads and old clips. It’s best to address the elephant in the Oval-Office-set room of his four-hour, intensely comprehensive look at Watergate — subtitled, “Or: How We Learned to Stop an Out-of-Control President” — from the outset, as the first of these vignettes happens early on. Yes, we start with a tape whirling through a machine, before cutting to performers reciting the exact, unedited dialogue from the trove of clandestine audio that’s now become part of the public record. It’s jarring at first, watching folks in 1970s executive-branch drag speak about what they knew and when they knew it.

Your first thought is that Douglas Hodge, a British stage veteran, does an extremely credible Richard Milhouse; it’s not an imitation, it’s a performance, which makes a difference. The second thought is that — how to say this? — not all actors are created equal, and some aren’t quite up to the task. The third thought is: Wait, are we in for four hours of this?

No, you are not, and it’s a credit to Ferguson that he not only uses these recreations sparingly but, for the most part, effectively. These scenes have an odd way of humanizing folks that have become participants in what now feels like a historical Shakespearean play of hubris, power-madness, paranoia, personal demons and a leader’s downfall. And they dot what is, in essence, a long, hard, thorough look at a highly namechecked crime that’s cast a massive shadow over every incident, great or small, of federal government malfeasance ever since. If the filmmaker hadn’t laid down the fundamentals of how long-held grudges led to a burglary and, eventually, the first resignation of an American president, we might only see the gimmick and not the grander story. But Watergate is not the sum of its re-enactments. It’s a near definitive portrait of the granddaddy of 20th-century political scandals, in all its nitty, gritty, dirty-tricks-and-Tricky-Dicks glory.

It’s both impressive and slightly mind-boggling, in fact, how Ferguson & Co. lay out the details of what is a complex series of incidents, indictments, denials, bombshells and betrayals (of both the Presidential administration and American public kind). The movie delves a bit into Nixon’s background involving his hatred of modern aristocrats and elites, just enough to set up his early failures in politics and his ascendancy to G.O.P. royalty. Pundits weigh in, and Ferguson’s own narration helps guide you to the starting point. Then it begins constructing the various conversations and bad decisions that led to a team of “plumbers” breaking into a hotel to ransack the DNC headquarters, which became the first light shower in a bona fide shitstorm. From there, it’s a litany of Watergate’s greatest hits: G. Gordon Liddy, media attacks, Woodward and Bernstein, congressional hearings, C.R.E.E.P., Kissinger (boooo!), wiretapping, “executive poppycock,” the Saturday Night Massacre and the revelation of taped discussions that would ultimately unite partisan opponents in the name of impeachment votes.

Thanks to much of the historical record being highly televised — the irony of TV, one of many of Nixon’s bête noires, being a factor in bringing him down is still stinging — there’s no shortage of footage of hearings, testy press conferences and news reports to use in this marathon-length postmortem. For viewers, the chance to re-view or check out for the first time these rogue’s-gallery moments is worth the ticket alone; it’s a time-capsule nocturnal emission for those who would think nothing of spending a day at the Paley Center surfing through 50-year-old broadcasts. And even if you’ve already read most of the books and compared notes on the Slow Burn podcast’s look back, there’s still plenty to dig into and/or be reminded of regarding a major Constitutional crisis that ended with 41 people convicted and Nixon retreating in disgrace to San Clemente.

Yes, the phrase “Constitutional crisis” … sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Ferguson knows that Watergate will bring to mind our current state of affairs, so he doesn’t lay on the wink-nudge parallels. He doesn’t need to — the eerie, unsettling echoes of media attacks, POTUS aggressiveness, racial slurs, toady pole-positioning, ethics violations and administration musical chairs circa ’70-74 are enough to make you nod in recognition. Rather than include a montage of our current C.I.C.’s disdain for anything resembling civility or the truth, Ferguson simply gives us the quote about being doomed to repeat history if you don’t know it. Watergate is an extraordinary dossier on what remains a major black mark on the republic. It’s also a sobering reminder that just because we were able to stop it once doesn’t mean we can relegate it to our country’s back pages. Consider this a cautionary tale.

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