Forty-one years ago today, on July 24, 1974, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that President Richard Nixon could no longer withhold tapes of his Watergate-related conversations from a federal judge. This decision would eventually lead, on August 9, to Nixon’s resignation of the Presidency. Watergate is a very long and complicated story, and has actually become much more opaque with the passage of time. You would think with as important an event in American history as it is, that it would figure more prominently in cinema. The truth is, however, that there are only a handful of major films made since the 1970s that deal with the scandal–at least relative to the great body of films dealing with events like the Civil War, World War II or the Civil Rights Movement–and their records, both as entertainment and as a faithful mirror of history, are decidedly mixed. I thought I would try to shine a light on the mostly-untouched subject of Watergate in film by analyzing three fairly large-profile movies that have dealt with various aspects of the scandal in markedly different ways.

Why aren’t there more films about Watergate? I don’t think it’s much of an answer to dismiss the whole subject as not very “photogenic.” It’s true that the scandal unfolded mostly in offices, courtrooms, hotel rooms and parking garages, and did not involve spectacular visuals or other movie-ready elements–yet the same can be said of Netflix’s political thriller series House of Cards, which was a huge hit. It could be that the subject is incredibly complex. To really understand Watergate you have to know a lot of arcane stuff: who the Plumbers were, what CREEP was, why Nixon taped his conversations, why what he said on the tapes was such a big deal, and even a bit about his psychology. This is a lot to ask a movie audience to absorb. It would probably make a much better TV series than a feature film (and in fact several Watergate movies, like Blind Ambition or The Final Days, were TV miniseries). Each of the three films on my list approach the subject differently, and have different expectations of what the audience knows–or what the film is willing to teach them.

Nixon (1995, Oliver Stone, director)

Oliver Stone’s sprawling 3-hour biopic Nixon, which he made as a follow-up to his controversial 1991 conspiracy fantasy JFK, could have been a great film, but it fails at most of its strategic weak points as a story and as history–and especially where Watergate is concerned. Stone wanted to tell the story of Nixon the man and in fact much of the movie charts his rise from humble beginnings in Whittier, California to the height of political power in 1968. Watergate gets going midway through, as Nixon (Anthony Hopkins) and his aides Haldeman (James Woods) and Colson (Kevin Dunn) fret about “leaks” from the executive branch, most notably the Pentagon Papers. Stone’s explication of the story of the Plumbers is generally pretty good, and the scene where Nixon and Haldeman have the conversation that eventually becomes the “smoking gun” tape is beautifully shot and directed. So far so good.

The problem is not what Stone knows about Watergate, but what he doesn’t know. He can’t resist speculating what’s on the infamous “18 1/2 minute gap” on the tapes–which, as depicted in the film, Nixon probably erased himself, possibly while he was drinking. In the movie Nixon explains to Haldeman about a secret intelligence group, “Track 2,” which was formed to whack Castro, and which later ran amok with no oversight. The obvious implication is that “Track 2” ultimately assassinated Kennedy. Considering that there is no real evidence that Kennedy was killed as part of a conspiracy, this wild foray into fantasy simply torpedoes the whole film, especially when Stone hints that the real reason Nixon resigns is to make sure “Track 2” stays secret for all time. I can understand why the Nixon family was outraged when this film came out. It’s just bad history, and a bit of a smear job. Shame, because the film is very well-made.

Dick (1999, Andrew Fleming, director)

Here’s a totally different take on Watergate: the scandal as a dumb teen comedy. Yes, you read that right. In this whimsical take on history, two 15-year-old girls (Kirsten Dunst and Michelle Williams–no, not the wine blogger!) who live in the Watergate building accidentally witness the burglary. G. Gordon Liddy tracks down the witnesses and ultimately Nixon (played here by Dan Hedaya) decides to keep tabs on them and find out what they know by appointing them as “official White House dog-walkers.” The dog, of course, is Checkers, who in real life was dead five years before Nixon got to the White House, but whatever. Over the course of the film the girls stumble into every major Watergate situation, from Deep Throat (they secretly feed information to Woodward and Bernstein from inside the White House) to the 18 1/2 minute gap (Nixon erases the tape to obliterate an embarrassing recording that one of the girls left for him). And, of course, they get to wear groovy ’70s clothes and generally yuk it up, with Hedaya chewing the scenery every chance he gets.

Dick is, I suppose, an interesting concept for a Watergate film, but its execution just doesn’t work. Granted, it’s been a while since I’ve seen the film, but I specifically remember nearly falling asleep during it. When you consider that I’m a historian who can recognize most of the Watergate tropes, and I didn’t find the comedic take on them that funny, I wonder how this would play to an audience that has no idea what any of this stuff was in real life. Hedaya’s performance as Nixon is little more than a Saturday Night Live-style comedic impression. In fact, that’s what the whole film feels like: a mostly unfunny SNL skit artificially padded to 90 minutes. If it stayed a 5-minute skit it might have been hilarious. As a full-length movie, it’s a chore even for, or perhaps especially for, a Watergate buff.

All The President’s Men (1976, Alan J. Pakula, director)

For my money, far and away the best Watergate film is Pakula’s tense thriller, All The President’s Men, which focuses on only one aspect of the scandal: the journalists, Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman), and their efforts to piece together the mystery of the burglary, who paid for it and where its various threads lead. Indeed this film is structured exactly like a mystery. There’s a crime committed at the beginning, the “detectives” get on the case, sift clues, follow up leads and interview suspects and witnesses, while at the same time trying to come to grips with the enormity of what they’ve discovered. Nixon never makes an appearance except in archival footage. Despite taking place in offices, waiting rooms, libraries and apartments cluttered in 1970s junk, President’s Men is as riveting as any crime thriller.

The movie, which was made from Bernstein and Woodward’s book shortly after the real scandal ended, works not just because it’s well-made and has terrific talent–in addition to Pakula, Hoffman and Redford, the movie involves Jason Robards, Jack Warden, Hal Holbrook and even F. Murray Abraham–but it has the guts to stick to what really happened, instead of wandering off into bizarre speculation like Stone’s Nixon. Pakula knew that the story of Watergate, unembellished, was as good as any fake plot a Hollywood writer could come up with, so his main task was merely to boil down a fascinating real-life detective story into a series of scenes that would play dramatically. That he did perfectly. The cast shines. Dialogue is fast-paced, intelligent and real. The audience thrills to be able to put the puzzle together along with the characters on-screen. And the fact that it really happened just deepens its impact.

Watergate is a very complex and somewhat daunting subject. In real life it had a cast of thousands, numerous plot twists, double-crosses and epic coincidences, and a fair number of unanswered questions. It’s a ready-made subject for a movie–but a filmmaker has to have a certain amount of courage to approach it honestly.

The header image of this article incorporates a photo (the tape recorder) by Flickr user Jeff Ruane and is used under Creative Commons 2.0 (Attribution); the Nixon image is public domain.
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