'Watergate — Or, How We Learned to Stop an Out-of-Control President': Film Review | Telluride 2018

Courtesy of Telluride Film Festival
A filmmaker's second choice as a subject for a presidential ouster.

Charles Ferguson offers a dense, detailed look at Richard Nixon's presidency and its consequences.

Bearing a subtitle that quite baldly states its contemporary relevance and agenda, Watergate — Or, How We Learned to Stop an Out-of-Control President across 261 minutes takes a microscopic look at the scandal that, 44 years ago, led to the only presidential resignation in American history. Those old enough to retain first-hand memories of Nixon, Kissinger, Halderman, Ehrlichman, Mitchell, Liddy and the rest of the gang might feel like they already know the whole story and may not want to invest another four hours-plus to revisit it. But younger viewers could do worse than to take the plunge to learn how the 37th president was forced from office back in 1976, with much of the story told by first-hand witnesses. After a pit stop in theaters on Oct. 12, the documentary will unfold Nov. 2-4 on the History Channel.

Charles Ferguson made his name with his incisive 2007 documentary about the Iraq War, No End in Sight, and scored even more decisively with the way he treated the complexity of the 2008 financial crisis in Inside Job. Three years ago came Time to Choose, about climate change. While issues-driven and on the same side politically as Michael Moore, Ferguson couldn't be more different in his approach to his subjects in that he's cool, fastidious, factual and as dedicated to making a strong case as a good lawyer would be.

Here, of course, there's no persuading to be done — Richard Nixon hoisted himself on his own petard. What Ferguson does well is to clearly and carefully lay out the events, from the tumultuous months preceding Nixon's election in November 1968 to the arrest four summers later of five men for breaking into the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee and the eventual chipping away at the lies and cover-ups and the eventual nailing of the pathetic truth. As cumbersome and slow as the machinery of government and the law may be, it was shown in this instance to be in working order.

Evidently feeling that serving up the same old familiar stock footage, network news coverage and talking head interviews wasn't going to be enough, Ferguson here introduces a new technique for him, staged re-enactments of select bits from Nixon's secret Oval Office tape recordings, with actors playing the famous participants. While there is an undeniable interest in watching these conversations unfold in all their venal and sometimes illegal intent, beholding actors playing such well-known figures while also seeing the real men themselves in clips from the time represents an impossible task even the best actors would fail to meet. The man playing Nixon does a decent job verbally but is too heavyset and thick-featured, while the Kissinger stand-in is impossible, both physically and in his accent.

That said, for old-timers who welcome a trip down this particularly unsavory lane of American history, as well as for news junkies, there is plenty to relish here in the first-hand accounts offered up by the couple of dozen witnesses called upon by Ferguson. There are the inevitable newsmen Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein and Dan Rather; anti-war activists Daniel Ellsberg and David Mixner; Nixon speechwriter Patrick Buchanan; biographers John Farrell and Richard Reeves; FBI agents Paul Magallanes and John Mindermann; broadcasters/reporters Lesley Stahl and Betty Medsger; former FBI acting director and deputy attorney general William Ruckelshaus; several prosecutors; Sens. Lowell Weicker and John Dean; Representative Pete McCloskey; and numerous others. Particularly impressive in the precision of her thinking and clarity of presentation is Elizabeth Holtzman, who was only 32 when she served as a member of the House Judiciary Committee when it conducted its impeachment inquiry.

The documentary is long and feels like it, paradoxically coming to seem slow and padded as it winds toward its historic climax during the summer of 1974; the governmental emphasis on detail and procedure was laudable in its thoroughness, but plodding as cinematic drama in this context. By this time, Ferguson's re-enactments of the tapes have understandably become minimal-to-nonexistent, but there is inevitable great drama at the end; enough Republicans wanted Nixon out quickly before the November elections, and the president used this leverage to win immunity from prosecution before he flew off to California. In the end, 41 people were convicted of various crimes related to Watergate, with sentences running from between two-and-a-half to eight years.

Will Ferguson ever get to make the dream film implicit in the subtitle of this one, a bookend that examines the ouster of the current occupant of the Oval Office? With this film, he's put his name on what undoubtedly would become a lengthy list of candidates and may well have already begun assembling a library of clips.

Production company: Representational Pictures, History
With: David Mixner, Daniel Ellsberg, John Farrell, Patrick Buchanan, John Dean, Richard Reeves, Carl Bernstein, Bob Woodward, Lesley Stahl, Hugh Sloan, Paul Magallanes, John Mindermann, Betty Medsger, Lowell Weicker, William Ruckelshaus, Richard Ben-Veniste, Jill Wine-Banks, George Frampton, John McCain, Dan Rather, Elizabeth Holtzman, Pete McCloskey, Evan Davis
Director-writer: Charles Ferguson
Producer: Krista Parris
Lead editor: Joe Garrity
Directors of photography: Yuanchen Liu, Daphne Matziaraki, Morgan Schmidt-Feng, Shana Hagan
Editors: Amy Foote, Kemal Trivedi, Cindy Lee
Music: Ben Holiday
Venue: Telluride Film Festival


261 minutes