TV Review: Watergate | dir. Charles Ferguson

in #review6 years ago (edited)

Sunday the 4th History Channel finished its three-night event airing a documentary about the Watergate scandal. I tuned in to each night and watched with great pleasure. Here are my thoughts.


Directed by Charles Fergusion with a runtime of four-and-a-half hours.

Look at that subtitle, just for a moment. Watergate, Or: How We Learned to Stop An Out of Control President. It would require a willful act of ignorance to not the commentary on the present day, the parallels.

Once again, we have a President who is flagrantly flouting the Constitution and the rule of law. The differences, however, are crucial and I shall not repeat them here because they are quite obvious. It is sufficient to say that anyone who is halfway up-to-date about the state of affairs would be aware of both the similarities and the differences and the fact that both are equally concerning.

I will not say more because I do not want this to become a political screed. As a reviewer, however, it is my duty to review every aspect that is relevant, and that includes the context in which this documentary was made because this documentary was made in response to the ongoing events of the present day.

Besides the obvious relevance of the documentary to the present day, the second immediate thing to be remarked upon is...

...the re-enactments.

As he started production in late 2016, one way to bring those pesky oval office scenes in the White House back to life was through re-enactments with actors on a set. The transcripts of telephone and office conversations are deadly to listen to, with poor audio quality, constant digressions, and atrocious grammar. “Some are incoherent and incomprehensible,” said Ferguson. “I wouldn’t want to inflict an hour of that on people. Everything was said, every single word, in the order they’re saying it. Nothing was added and changed; all I did was edit not for grammar but for length. I picked snippets when they spoke grammatically and used those. Grammar wasn’t Nixon’s strong point.”

Douglas Hodge plays Nixon, Mark Dexter as John Dean, John Hopkins as Haldeman, Will Keen as Ehrlichmann, Elliot Levey as Kissinger, Russell Bentley as Charles "Chuck" Colson, Stewart Alexander as Haig, and Robert Morgan as Billy Graham.

The acting is fine. Let me the first to say, the performances are just fine and the actors did an impressive job with their roles.

The problem becomes one of casting. Douglas Hodge has eerie resemblances to Nixon thanks to good make-up work and frowning, but his relative youth makes it so that they're close enough to be recognized as attempting the same people yet far enough away that you'd have to squint (and bash yourself in the head with a golf club a couple times) to actually confuse them for each other.

Levey as Kissinger is a decent performance but his face is to triangular to capture the broadity of Kissinger's face. Bentley acquits excellently as Colson, but I suspect that had we seen more of him he would, like Nixon, have simply been an uncanny facsimile.

The direction of these segments is unspectacular, but it is not mediocre. Shots looking straight down from the ceiling enliven the proceedings, even if, I think, the whole reenactment could have done with more straight-on, actor-looking-at-the-camera type of shots. (Think re-enactments as directed by Wes Anderson and you'd be on the right track.)

How did the re-enactments work best? They worked best when introduced by the original tape playing a sentence, transcript at the bottom screen, followed by the re-enactment, which begins with the appropriate actor repeating the line from the tape. It is only when this is deviated from that the reenactments become genuinely awkward.

Having gotten through the political aspect and through the awkward matter of the reenactments...

...this is a fantastic documentary, with pacing almost akin to a thriller. Ferguson interviewed many people who were involved: Patrick Buchanan, John Dean, Carl Bernstein, Bob Woodward, and many others. For reasons unsurprising Donald Segretti (head of "dirty tricks") and Henry Kissinger (former Secretary of State and war criminal) declined to be interviewed.

It is, in short, a documentary that gets you to feel the excitement of it. One of my favorite moments is a recording of (if I remember correctly) the Watergate committee sans camera, in which the audio & transcripts was overlaid on photos of the original speakers.

Archive footage is drawn upon, as are the Watergate tapes, a couple other archival tapes (the Supreme Court allows microphones, but not cameras) and photographs and even drawings (of the Court in session).

It's a singularly fantastic documentary, pacy, accurate - Charles Ferguson says that the full story of Watergate from beginning to end has never been told in all its complexity and so felt a need to do that. I think Watergate does that.

Most importantly, the documentary provides a little bit of background on many of the important players introduced. Much of the first episode is spent on the background to Nixon's first '68 election, and the '72 election, of course, plays an important part in the story's early stages, also, in chapters 1 and 2. How many people now know that Muskie's campaign was sabotaged? That McGovern's chauffeur was on the Nixon payroll?

The ending of the documentary brings us to Gerald Ford's pardon, a pardon to which two opinions are provided: firstly, that it was right, and that spending another year on Nixon would've been painful, that bringing him to court for trial would've meant that the prosecutors would've had to wait for years and years for furor to die down. (One of the prosecutors was fine with that. "We'll go our separate lives, and when it comes time to bring him to trial, we'll come back." Paraphrasing.)

The second opinion is the one I find myself agreeing with: that it was wrong, that the President of America ought to have been just as subject to the law as every other man, that what Nixon did was a criminal act and that it ought to have prosecuted. Ultimately, it is left to the individual viewer to decide which opinion they agree with.

concluding thoughts.png
This dramatic, pacy documentary is highly recommended for every viewer. Once again, it was here that we learned How to Stop An Out of Control President. In the forty-plus intervening years, we seem to have forgotten, and it is beyond obvious we need a reminder. But even beyond its timeliness this is an excellent, informative, highly watchable documentary that I recommend to anyone who enjoys documentaries.

History Channel, later this month, will be broadcasting another three-night event starting November 18th, called The Clinton Affair. I will be watching and reviewing this one as well.

Between Watergate and The Clinton Affair I'm wondering if I missed a documentary on the Teapot Dome scandal from back in the Harding Administration!


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Nice review! I need to find it also... The documentary sounds exciting. And God knows that subtitle is one of the catchiest ever.

It may be on demand. The first episode was on Sunday on Spectrum, anyway. I highly recommend it! It honestly is rather exciting. And, yeah, it is a really good subtitle.

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