Thirty-five years ago yesterday, President Richard Millhouse Nixon became the first United States president to resign from office. Besieged by the scandal surrounding his ordering of the bugging of the Democratic National Headquarters at the Watergate Hotel and with the threat of an impeachment trial hanging over his head, Nixon found that there was no way that he could lead the nation and tendered his resignation to the nation and then hopped a helicopter out of town the next day. It was a dramatic time in American politics and it was only natural that Hollywood would move to dramatize the entire affair.
All The President’s Men – The crusading newspaper reporter was a staple in cinema for decades, only recently falling out of favor as more people became convinced that major media was nothing more than corporate shills/conservative shills/liberal shills. (Take your pick.) Gone are the days of Humphrey Bogart exposing a racketeer in Deadline USA or Robert Mitchum turning a spotlight the ugliness of anti-Semitism in Gentleman’s Agreement. But one of the last films to use the trope also happens to be one of the best. And for bonus points, it also happens to be true.
Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman star as the Washington Post reporters who uncover a far bigger story than they anticipated when the dig in to some irregularities around what everyone else considered a non-story. What they found would ultimately topple a presidency. But the strength of the film isn’t in the result, but in the investigation itself. Filming in locations around Washington DC lend an air of verisimilitude that elevate the film to docudrama.
Although Woodward and Bernstein have commented that they were pretty happy with how the movie came out – though they’ve joked that their cinematic counterparts were far better looking than themselves – it does the necessary evils of condensing action and characters to fit the limitations of film. But despite numerous volumes having been written over the intervening three and a half decades, their book still remains the best resource on the Watergate story.
Nixon/Frost – Where All The President’s Men deals with the uncovering of Nixon’s perfidy, Nixon/Frost’s characters look to put him on trial, if only in the media. Based on the critically acclaimed play by Peter Morgan, it chronicles British talk show host David Frost’s historic post-Watergate interviews with the former president. Nixon’s successor, Gerald Ford, had already pardoned him for any possible role he may have had in the break-in, rendering him immune from any legal prosecution.
Director Ron Howard assembled a great cast to center around Frank Langella and Michael Sheen, recreating their stage roles of president and interviewer. But has Morgan fictionalized the proceedings somewhat for the sake of drama? Maybe a smidge, but given that Nixon was a larger-than-life figure even by the standards of politics, it probably doesn’t do much damage to the historical record. But it does show how the media helped a nation gain some closure over the whole incident.
Nixon – Those familiar with director Oliver Stone’s political leanings may have been a bit surprised at his biopic of the 37th president. Instead of an unflattering hatchet job, Stone actually delivers a portrait that is at times outright sympathetic to its subject. Of course, it didn’t please everyone and was denounced by Nixon’s daughters and Walt Disney’s widow Lillian, upset that Disney subsidiary Buena Vista distributed the film.
Stone’s films flashes back and forth through Nixon’s life, from his childhood to his final days in the White House. It centers on both the quiet moments of his life and the big, bombastic political moments and ultimately feels as if Stone himself is trying to discover what choices and experiences lead him to his downfall. Probably not the only source one should consult when attempting to learn more about his life, but one that certainly is unique in its approach to the material.
Dick – In 2005 when former FBI Associate Director Mark Felt revealed himself to be Woodward and Bernstein’s chief source dramatically given the name “Deep Throat,” I really was hoping that someone would ask him if he had seen this movie. In it, two ditzy teens, Michelle Williams and Kirsten Dunst, stumble in to a job at the White House and uncover Nixon’s involvement in Watergate. Not knowing what to do, they eventually confide in two reporters named Woodward and Bernstein.
While not a great comedy, it certainly is energized by its goofy premise and a cast that includes Will Ferrell, Harry Shearer, Jim Breuer, Dave Foley, Teri Garr, Ana Gasteyer and Bruce McCulloch. And special note should be made of Dan Hedaya performance as Nixon, comically exaggerating all of Nixon’s traits to great effect.