“History doesn't repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” This observation, attributed to Mark Twain, is particularly apt as the 50th anniversary of the “third rate burglary” at the Democratic National Committee’s Watergate building office that led to the only resignation of a US President, coincides with the 2022 televised hearings of the U.S. House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol.
The Watergate burglary led not just to the departure of President Richard Nixon and prison terms for many top Administration officials, including former Attorney General John Mitchell, and a Pulitzer Prize for young Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. Because Nixon’s Vice President had resigned in disgrace and been replaced by Gerald Ford, it led to a President who had never run for national office. It gave us new American heroes like the fearless reporters who would not give up on the story, the informant known as “Deep Throat” whose identity was kept secret for decades, lawyers like Leon Jaworski, Judge Sirica, and Jill Wine-Banks, and Members of Congress and the Senators like Barbara Jordan, Sam Ervin, and Howard Baker. It gave a start to up-and-comers like a young committee staffer from Illinois named Hillary Rodham, soon to become Hillary Clinton. It led to new terms, like “enemies list” a secret list of prominent names Nixon and his staff considered hostile and “inoperative,” the White House Press Secretary’s word for previous statements that were, well, lies. The impact was so seismic that almost every scandal that came afterward at some point was subjected to the suffix “-gate.”
And it also led to some fine documentaries and many feature movies exploring various aspects of the story, from the hilarious satire “Dick” to “All the President’s Men.” Actors playing Richard Nixon include Sir Anthony Hopkins, John Cusack, Frank Langella, and Dan Hedaya. Directors who took on this story include Alan J. Pakula, Robert Altman, Oliver Stone, and Oscar-winning documentarian Charles Ferguson. There have been movies based on the lives of colorful ancillary figures like Charles Colson (“Born Again”) and G. Gordon Liddy (“Will”). There’s even a satire about Watergate set in a convent, “Nasty Habits.”
Watergate, to filmmakers, is the gift that keeps on giving. This year included "Gaslight," a series starring Julia Roberts and Sean Penn as Martha and John Mitchell; a new speculative feature release called “18 ½” about the mysterious missing moments on one of the Oval Office tape recordings; a 50th anniversary CNN documentary series called “Watergate: Blueprint for a Scandal”; and Justin Timberlake and Lisa Kudrow as John and Maureen Dean in Norman Lear's upcoming live re-enactment of the Watergate hearings.
There is still a lot to explore and unpack about the Watergate story, and I predict that by 2072 there will be a new bunch of Watergate films. I recommend developing films about Nixon’s daughter Julie, married to the grandson of President Eisenhower, and one of her father’s strongest defenders, the “dirty tricks” and “plumbers” campaign staff, the courageous bookkeeper who spoke to Woodward and Bernstein about corruption in the campaign, and about Frank Wills, the security guard who discovered the burglary. I suspect by then we will also have more than a dozen movies about the Trump era, including the “perfect call” to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and the January 6, 2021 attack on the Capitol.
Some of the best films for understanding Watergate:
Writer Peter Morgan is at his best with real-life stories of two powerful people at odds, and this is a superb example. Three years after leaving office, Richard Nixon (Frank Langella) agreed to an interview with David Frost (Michael Sheen), a British broadcaster who was better known for celebrity chit-chat than hard-hitting, deeply researched questions. Nixon was paid $800,000 and according to reports believed that the interview would vindicate him. As each of the men tries to outsmart the other, the dramatic tension is powerful. Roger Ebert gave the film four stars, saying it is “all the more effective in taking the point of view of the outsider, the 'lightweight' celebrity interviewer.”
“Gaslit”/”The Martha Mitchell Effect”
The excellent first season of the “Slow Burn” podcast from Slate brought Martha Mitchell back into the story. She was the outspoken wife of former Attorney General John Mitchell who had taken over Nixon’s re-election campaign when the Watergate break-in took place. Nixon famously mused that if not for Martha Mitchell, there would have been no Watergate (meaning the scandal, not the break-in). She knew immediately that the break-in was connected to the White House because one of the burglars, James McCord, had been on her security detail. There was a concerted effort to marginalize her by calling her an alcoholic or mentally ill. “Slow Burn” inspired the “Gaslit” series starring Julia Roberts, which also focuses on White House Counsel John Dean (Dan Stevens), who parted ways with Nixon early on and told the truth to the Committee. “The Martha Mitchell Effect” is a documentary on Netflix with some remarkable archival footage showing how unfair the characterization of her as unstable was.
Oliver Stone co-wrote and directed a film with Sir Anthony Hopkins as the tragic figure who gave so much to his country but whose toxic insecurity and suspicion cost him everything. Roger Ebert gave the film four stars and called it one of the best films of the year. He wrote: “I went to the screening of Oliver Stone's 'Nixon' expecting to see Atilla the Hun in a suit and tie. What I saw surprised me as much as anything this unpredictable director has ever done: a portrait of Richard Nixon that inspired a certain empathy for who he was, how he got to the highest place in the land and how he fell from it.” Hopkins is well cast, playing Nixon as a Shakespearean character with a tragic flaw.
The better you know the details of Watergate the more you’ll enjoy “Dick,” a wild satire starring Michelle Williams and Kirsten Dunst as high school girls who live in the Watergate and accidentally lead to the discovery of the Watergate break-in. On a tour of the White House, they recognize someone from the burglary, and so they get hired as “White House dog walkers” to make sure they do not figure out what is going on. Williams and Dunst are adorable and Dan Hedaya and his perpetual five-o’clock shadow make an excellent Nixon. The movie is filled with bright colors, sharp wit, and high energy. Roger Ebert called it a “sly little comic treasure.”
Robert Altman directed this “fictional meditation” on Nixon’s story, with Philip Baker Hall as the tortured ex-President, delivering a monologue filled with anger, bitterness, recrimination, and sorrow. Roger Ebert gave it four stars and called it "one of the most scathing, lacerating and brilliant movies of 1984." Ebert also said Hall played Nixon "with such savage intensity, such passion, such venom, such scandal, that we cannot turn away.”
“Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House”
This is the story of the mysterious, anonymous figure who met with Bob Woodward in the shadowy parking garage. Speculation about his identity lasted for decades before Mark Felt revealed that he had been the source guiding Woodward and Bernstein to some of the most significant revelations of the Washington Post’s coverage. Liam Neeson plays Felt, a more complicated figure than the Holbrook version. He never said, “Follow the money.” He leaked to other journalists in addition to Woodward. The true story is murkier and more complex than Goldman’s version. Was it sacrifice and patriotism? Or, was it payback for losing out on the top job at the FBI when J. Edgar Hoover died? Who was Felt protecting, American voters or the Bureau? We know his name now but there is still a lot of mystery left in his story.
“All the President’s Men”
Brilliant in every category, this is one of the greatest films of all time. Like the movie that edged it out for Best Picture that year, “Rocky,” it is an underdog story, focusing on the two young reporters who would not give up and thus giving us someone to root for. The production designer replicated the newsroom of the Washington Post so meticulously they even used actual garbage from the newsroom to put in the wastebaskets on the set. Now it looks like a time capsule; the reporters use typewriters and phone books and in a memorable scene Woodward and Bernstein look through thousands of paper request slips by hand at the Library of Congress. Screenwriter William Goldman, who won an Oscar for this film, understood that this is not a movie about the hubris, paranoia, and corruption that brought down a President; it is a story about the courage, integrity, and determination of those who wanted to find out what happened and tell the truth about it. Watch for the look on Robert Redford’s face as a source on the other end of the phone says, “I probably shouldn’t tell you this, but….” Watch Oscar-winner Jason Robards, Jr. as Ben Bradlee, stopping back in the newsroom in his dinner jacket after attended some glittery Washington event, give the go-ahead on the story and rap sharply on the desk, an exclamation point as he leaves for home. As Mr. Rogers said, in scary times look for the helpers.