Rethinking Watergate in the Trump Age With New Documentary

BETTMAN/GETTY IMAGES/courtesy of BERLIN film festival
Charles Ferguson on Nixon: "He was a complicated person, and there were parts of him that were very serious and even idealistic."

Nine years after winning an Oscar for his financial crisis doc 'Inside Job,' documentarian Charles Ferguson lands in Berlin with a four-hour, two-part doc about an "out-of-control president" way before the current commander-in-chief took office.

After making a major splash with 2010's Oscar-winning documentary Inside Job, tech millionaire turned filmmaker Charles Ferguson appeared to disappear, at least in the eyes of anyone eager to see what was next for the man who had dissected the 2008 global financial crisis with such surgical precision.

He would resurface five years later with the climate-change-focused Time to Choose, which garnered critical acclaim but failed to generate major ripples beyond the festival circuit. Now he returns with Watergate, an impressively epic, exhaustive exploration of Richard Nixon's notorious scandal, spread over four-plus hours (handily cut into two parts) and undoubtedly among the lengthier titles at this year's Berlin Film Festival.

But this wasn't the original plan.

After Inside Job's success, it looked like Ferguson would be following the path of many Academy-endorsed doc-makers and shift the focus of his lens to even more ambitious subjects. But he kept hitting walls with the ones he tackled.

First came an HBO narrative feature about Julian Assange, a film that Ferguson says didn't work — and was never completed — because of "death by a thousand cuts," with several different versions of the script and nobody involved able to agree.

Then, in late 2012, he was hired by CNN to direct a documentary about Hillary Clinton. Less than a year later he called it off, citing insurmountable resistance from not just the Clintons and the Democratic Party, but the Republicans as well.

"Both sides made extremely aggressive attempts to interfere with the making of the film," he says.

With Watergate, the first major documentary about the president-toppling scandal (something Ferguson says he finds "a little peculiar"), the director has a top-tier subject whose potential for feather-ruffling ended several decades ago. While the name of Donald Trump isn't once mentioned in Watergate's 260 minutes (although the film's subtitle, Or How We Learned to Stop an Out-of-Control President, offers a certain hat-tip), it's nearly impossible to watch it without comparing Nixon's grandiose, multilayered self-destruction with the current situation in the White House.

This affected Ferguson's storytelling technique, which he initially had hoped could serve up "more of a political thriller" with "comedic and lighthearted" moments.

"It became clear that this was not going to be appropriate," he says. "If this was going to be watched in the context of another potential presidential impeachment, then I had to be really careful."

And in making Watergate while Trump's presidency was in its chaotic infancy, Ferguson found himself softening somewhat toward Nixon — whose name remains synonymous with conspiracy and corruption. As for Trump, Ferguson is less forgiving.

"[Nixon] was a complicated person, and there were important parts of him that were very serious and even idealistic," he says. "And he was also — without question — an extremely intelligent and intellectually sophisticated guy, in ways that Mr. Trump shows no sign of being."

This story first appeared in the Jan. 30 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.