One misguided decision can partially offset a whole lot of good ones, and so it is with “Watergate,” a comprehensive trip into the way-back machine, which makes the serious misstep of dramatically reenacting the Nixon tapes. Receiving a theatrical run in advance of a three-night stand on History channel, it’s still worthwhile as a dense look at America’s past — and in terms of checking executive actions, perhaps a preview of its future.
Director Charles Ferguson (“Inside Job”) interviews a who’s who of key Watergate figures, providing a deep dive into Richard Nixon’s flawed psyche, which allowed the abuses of power and subsequent obstruction of justice that eventually forced his resignation in 1974. But if the hybrid approach he employs by weaving in the dramatized scenes isn’t quite a cancer on his documentary, it’s a drag on an otherwise first-rate account.
In terms of an insider’s guide go what transpired, one could hardly ask for a better cast of characters, including reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, Dan Rather, Nixon White House aides John Dean and Pat Buchanan, Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Elsberg, the late John McCain, and former members of the Senate Watergate Committee, like Lowell Weicker, to name a few.
But then Ferguson mucks that up by having actors perform the taped Oval Office meetings, with Douglas Hodge as Nixon, complete with sweaty upper lip and at-times slurred, drunken delivery.
The problem is that we’ve seen plenty of dramatic portrayals of this period, from “All the President’s Men” to “Nixon” to “The Final Days” to, most recently, “The Post.” Because there’s such a rich treasure trove of video and archival material, mixing actors in with the actual footage of Nixon — uttering by-now indelible phrases like “I’m not a crook” — merely muddies the waters in wholly unnecessary, neither-fish-nor-fowl fashion.
“Watergate” improves markedly as use of the tapes recedes, peaking with its dramatic framing of the Saturday Night Massacre — when Nixon moved to fire special prosecutor Archibald Cox, prompting the resignation of Attorney General Elliot Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus (also among those interviewed).
The filmmakers vividly recreate that period in part through the eyes of young lawyers who were part of Cox’s team, such as Jill Wine-Banks and Richard Ben-Veniste, who recalls realizing, “The president hadn’t fired us, he’d fired Archie,” and that Nixon would receive a lesson that “the legal system is not to be trifled with.”
Ferguson (who also narrates the film) closes with the not-so-subtle reminder that those who forget history are doomed to repeat it. In the press notes, he states that he began the project four years ago as “a historical detective story,” only to recognize that the issues within were “urgently relevant.”
From that perspective, “Watergate” serves as a road map to understanding the greatest constitutional crisis the U.S. has experienced, at least thus far, and a reminder of those who stepped forward — in journalism and government — in that moment. Moreover, with so many of these key participants now septuagenarians and octogenarians, the opportunity to interview them at length seems like a genuine service.
At more than four hours sans commercials, “Watergate” exhibits an admirable richness of detail and depth. If only Ferguson had trusted the documentary aspects enough to let them and Nixon speak, without the unnecessary embroidery, for themselves.
“Watergate” will play in New York and Los Angeles beginning Oct. 12 and Oct. 19, respectively, before premiering on History on Nov. 2.