A Brian Lapping Associates production in association with Discovery Prods. and the BBC. Series producer, Norma Percy; series director, Mick Gold; producer/director, Paul Mitchell; photographer, Sean Bobbitt; Twenty years after Richard Nixon resigned the presidency in disgrace, this stunningly conceived and realized documentary miniseries brilliantly chronicles the events — and their inevitability — that led to the national nightmare Watergate. Funny, tragic, pathetic and probing, docu dramatically stares down Watergate’s smoking gun and makes its ultimate conclusion perfectly clear: Nixon’s the one. Still. Now more than ever.
For those who lived through the high drama of the Watergate hearings, the sound of Tennessee Sen. Howard Baker’s voice continues to haunt like a death knell as his two signature questions –“What did the president know?” and “When did he know it?”– rumble through history on their mission to gather the truth. There is no mistaking, or covering up, the answers anymore.
“Watergate’s” firsthand recollections, previously undisclosed White House tapes and some good reporting show that not only did the president know everything, he knew it from the start. The buck — and the hush money — started and stopped in the Oval Office, and no attempts to whitewash the facts or launder the evidence can change that.
The first two installments of the five-hour “Watergate” provide good history. The program begins by establishing a perspective on the times: the Vietnam War and the surrounding protest, the opening of China, the beginnings of detente with the former Soviet Union.
It then dives straight into the horses’ mouths with interviews of the scandal’s participants and apologists. What emerges is a powerful retelling of the story in the words of its progenitors, its provocateurs, its prevaricators and its pawns.
Two decades after the fact, there is an odd, almost perverse fascination in seeing and hearing the familiar president’s men — John Ehrlichman and John Dean , the late Bob Haldeman, Jeb Stuart Magruder, Howard Hunt, Charles Colson et al. — having grown older and less severe, telling a story far different from the one they originally wove, and telling it as cavalierly as if they themselves were somehow out of the loop in fueling its lies.
The great exception here is the unrepentant and unreinable G. Gordon Liddy, who details, almost gleefully, a series of White House spying operations so nutty that just knowledge of his existence should have been grounds for impeachment.
In one bizarre incident in former Attorney General John Mitchell’s office, Liddy actually proposed drugging and kidnapping 1972 Democratic campaign officials.
But it is the portrait that these men paint of a truly venal president — Nixon himself did not cooperate with the filmmakers — that makes “Watergate” unforgettable.
Beautifully edited to juxtapose Nixon against those who panicked when cool heads were necessary, lied to save him and, in the short run, took the fall for him, the film presents a man consumed by paranoia, a national leader who could issue secret executive orders to tap phones, open mail and break into offices, then subvert the law and justice at every turn to protect his own hide.
Not to go unnoticed here is the choice of Daniel Schorr as narrator and guide. Nixon hated him. Now, Schorr, and the truth, have outlasted his venom.