Can a nearly 4½-hour documentary be about current events without ever directly referencing anything that’s taken place in the last three years?
If the movie is called “Watergate,” then yes. So, do I need to be incident-and-name-specific about the parallels to today? Surely not, if director Charles Ferguson is going to be cheeky enough to winkingly subtitle his exhaustive history of the scandal, “Or, How We Learned to Stop an Out-of-Control President.” I forget, which branch of government gets to appoint Special Prosecutor of the Bleeding Obvious?
Even without the bombshell-a-day swarm we’re living in, which could make watching “Watergate” like turning your news-junkie brain into the mental equivalent of a yarn-and-thumbtacks bulletin board of links between now and then, Ferguson’s film is still a rivetingly thorough account of what took down Richard Milhous Nixon, and plenty of others in his administration.
Though famed chronicles like Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s “All the President’s Men,” and the popular 1976 movie adaptation, have dominated popular retellings of how a botched break-in at Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate hotel in Washington, D.C., on June 17, 1972, ultimately exposed a matrix of governmental wrongdoing, Ferguson wants to remind us that the Nixon administration’s criminality had a backstory, and a lot happened after the storied reporters’ initial breakthroughs.
It’s why “Watergate” devotes a fair amount of time to how the chip on Nixon’s shoulder about Eastern elites and Jews, an unpopular war in Vietnam, the Pentagon Papers’ igniting of a war on the media, reelection worries about Democratic opponents, and who Nixon surrounded himself with, created a power-mad mind-set that not only approved lawbreaking, but the covering up. It’s also also why the second half of “Watergate” — once the net widened beyond the lonely Post coverage — is so richly labyrinthine about the role of Congress, their investigative arms, the Justice Department, the media, and the public, in ferreting out the truth and holding an increasingly cornered, destructive president to account. If the first half is the origin story of how Nixon’s meat-grinder brain turned corroding influences into tainted actions, the second is the outbreak saga: how a sickened America responded.
Ferguson secures illuminating testimony from as many of the key players as are still around, from Woodward and Bernstein — who still show boyish enthusiasm about their triumph — to a calmly reflective former White House counsel John Dean, whose cooperation with prosecutors spelled doom for his bosses. There are still plenty of twinkles in the eyes of many of the interviewees, probably because they overwhelmingly represent the right side of history, and they came from both sides of the aisle. (Henry Kissinger — shock of shocks — wouldn’t be interviewed.)
While the naturally propulsive timeline, archival footage and talking heads provide a compelling narrative, Ferguson’s use of actors to reenact the Oval Office conversations captured secretly by Nixon are an odd distraction. It’s hard to say if the real, scratchy audio, augmented by subtitles superimposed over photographs would have been any better, but Ferguson’s docudrama instincts — the actors’ impressions are all over the place, the staging and shot selection mediocre — aren’t as strong as his documentary storytelling talents, which combine an issue-driven professor’s outraged gusto with a crime novelist’s dot-connecting acumen.
Though this look back is formidably researched and should appeal to both obsessives and the uninformed, it’s the insistent echo to our present upheaval, and the refreshing reminder that a polarized nation only got more unified in its desire for the truth, that gives “Watergate” its peculiarly of-the-moment power.
Running time: 4 hours, 20 minutes
Playing: Starts Oct. 19, Laemmle Monica Film Center, Santa Monica; also on History, Nov. 2-4