'Enemies: The President, Justice & The FBI': TV Review
Alex Gibney's Showtime documentary series is all about Donald Trump, even when it's saying that it's about Watergate, Iran-Contra or various Bill Clinton scandals.
There's a timer ticking on Showtime's Enemies: The President, Justice & The FBI.
The four-part documentary series is effectively a three-part overture directed by Jed Rothstein and leading up to a feature-length conclusion from Alex Gibney, a fourth part that, in the 97-minute version sent to critics, promised to be "updated to reflect current events unfolding in DC." Gibney doesn't require a finite resolution of Robert Mueller's investigation into various nooks and crannies of Donald Trump's presidential campaign and administration, but with that pivotal fourth episode set to premiere on Dec. 9, there's plenty of room for Gibney's argument and its conclusions to evolve.
That Enemies: The President, Justice & The FBI feels a lot like a self-inflicted clock management test from the most prolific figure in documentary filmmaking makes the endeavor very complicated to review. As it stands now, the fourth installment is the least effective and most flimsily crafted in the uneven-yet-interesting series. Check back in a month and it could have become brilliant, hopelessly naive or something in-between.
The doc was inspired by Tim Weiner's Enemies: A History of the FBI — inspired very loosely in the sense that Weiner's book was published in 2012 and the Showtime series, produced through Gibney's Jigsaw Productions, is entirely about Trump. Even the parts of Enemies that aren't about Trump, and the first three episodes ostensibly are not about Trump, are about Trump. Our 45th president isn't the 800-pound gorilla in the corner of this series. He's the 800-pound gorilla sitting in front of you in the theater as you're watching Enemies: The President, Justice & The FBI, cackling and smoking a cigar like Max Cady in Cape Fear.
The three Rothstein-directed episodes are, on their surface, about looking at three key crises of presidential power in the past 50 years — Watergate, Iran-Contra and everything related to Bill Clinton — and showing how those circumstances shaped and established precedent for the interaction between the president, the Department of Justice and the intelligence community. Understanding that precedent is the easiest way to put into context why the firing of James Comey, the maligning of Robert Mueller and the high level of apathy for the truth currently infecting Washington are such a concern. Whether studying prior crises is any way to predict how the Trump/Mueller kerfuffle will end is unclear because, as you may have noticed, it's still going on.
You'd be fair to wonder if you actually need another documentary or docuseries episode devoted to Watergate, Iran-Contra and the Clinton stuff. Watergate has been picked over in-depth and to death, while in this 20th anniversary of the Clinton impeachment, that mess is getting wall-to-wall retrospective treatment.
Gibney and Rothstein's FBI-centric approach is, if nothing else, skewed a hair to the side of the version of these stories you've seen before.
The Watergate chapter takes the familiar narrative with Woodward and Bernstein and the triumph of journalism and instead examines the FBI investigations happening simultaneously and gives as good an explanation as I've seen for Mark Felt's compulsion to become Deep Throat. A lot of the taking heads, folks like Woodward and John Dean, have put themselves out there constantly and don't add much. However, giving time to some of the FBI agents who were on the case of the Watergate break-in from the beginning was worthwhile. With Weiner, a consulting producer, steering things, it's here we see a starting point for the need to recognize and honor the independence of the DOJ and intelligence community.
If the Watergate chapter has a "Here's how the system can work successfully" retroactive optimism, both the Iran-Contra and Clinton episodes show an erosion of that ideal system of checks and balances. Distance from the events at hand isn't always on the filmmakers' side. Ed Meese and Ken Starr, two of the showcase interviewees in these episodes, aren't all that introspective, and instead of offering a smoking gun both hours are a lot of smoke, or at least hot air, especially when you get to the Clinton hour, characterized by the put-upon petulance of the Clinton supporters and Starr's smirking visage. Iran-Contra becomes a "Here's how the system failed," and the Clinton fiasco becomes "Here's how the system became a partisan disaster in which nobody cares about actual success or failure."
Through it all, whenever there's any opportunity to tie things in to Trump, the editors jump at it. Trump's 1980s and '90s incarnations make appearances in the second and third episodes, and there are smash cutaways to incriminating Trump tweets always ready to expose either hypocrisy or the-more-things-change-the-more-they-stay-the-same ironies, such as appearances by young-ish Jeff Sessions or Lindsey Graham ranting in favor of Clinton's impeachment. Like hints of a symphonic theme meant to whet appetites for the grand melodic reveal, these Trump interjections work as preludes to the fourth episode, even if they undermine the ability of earlier episodes to just stand on their own.
And, again, it's not ideal because the fourth episode doesn't hold together, at least not yet. You get the sense that Gibney was confident that Comey would talk to him, noting as he does that Comey did more than 80 interviews tied to his recent book release. Comey didn't talk and, in his glaring absence, the fourth episode is so driven by excerpts playing over stock Getty images that it frequently plays as an advertisement for Comey's audiobook. Without any new content from Comey or interviews from most of the past, present or current members of the Trump administration or Republican power base, Gibney is left relying on happy-to-talk-to-anybody figures like James Clapper, Adam Schiff and Preet Bharara.
For all of its promised updates tied to current events, the fourth hour only spends 10 minutes on the aftermath of the Comey firing and the early fruits of the Mueller investigation, less than it devotes re-explaining what happened on 9/11 and rehashing the now-notorious hospital bed confrontation involving Comey, John Ashcroft and the Stellar Wind surveillance program. At times, the points Gibney is making and making again in this episode are so obvious I'm not sure who he's even preaching to, other than an audience that probably tuned out of the series already due to its "Everything is all about Trump" beginnings.
Gibney has directed plenty of documentaries intent on revealing new information or presenting old information in shocking ways. Enemies: The President, Justice & The FBI isn't one of those. Little or nothing new is being reported or revealed. It's contextualizing and formulating an argument slightly in advance of what we anticipate will be a historical moment. The chances that the next month will require a new ending are low. The chances it will require an aggressive adjustment of focus are high. I can tell you that so far it's interesting, but not if it's worth it.
Premieres: Sunday, 8 p.m. ET/PT (Showtime)