Documentarian Charles Ferguson won an Oscar for “Inside Job,” a 2010 film that examined the system-wide corruption at the root of the then-ongoing financial crisis. And his new film, “Watergate – Or: How We Learned to Stop an Out of Control President,” which screened at Telluride Aug. 31 in advance of a theatrical release Oct. 12 and a television bow on History Nov. 2, ratifies that he is a director adept at explaining the ties between various players in the midst of complex crises. The lengthy documentary, presented in two parts with an intermission, provides a worthwhile primer for those who are unschooled in the Nixon presidency, the chaos it unleashed, and how the law eventually brought it to heel.
The element of the film’s early going that works most well is an analysis of Nixon’s mentality towards Vietnam, and the ways in which his paranoid refusal to lose fueled, and was fueled by, the quagmire there. But after that, the film often defaults to revisiting well-known history. “Watergate” moves like a political thriller through events that are generally a part of the public record — and already mythologized effectively in one of the most famous films of the 1970s. The pace never flags, but some of its entertaining devices work against Ferguson’s insightfulness.
To wit: Ferguson uses tapes from the bugged White House whose very existence speaks to Nixon’s paranoia, and whose content screams it. But they serve as the transcript for re-enactments in which actor Douglas Hodge plays the President, ranting and fulminating. Hodge is a fine Nixon, but this is a performance we’ve seen so often in fictional films, including Oscar-nominated turns by Anthony Hopkins and Frank Langella. Nixon is so recognizable at this point that to play him is, inevitably, to be parodying him — a problem for a film in which the President is most compelling as a spectral presence plotting in secret as his team ends up taking the fall. It’s distracting spectacle in the midst of a fairly sobering tale; the film practically demands to be taken seriously, a demand more easily granted when the faux-Nixon isn’t onscreen.
The re-enactments fall away, though, as the film wears on and the mechanisms of government click into gear to address Nixon’s misdeeds. It’s then, toggling through Judiciary Committee hearings and contemporaneous media coverage, that “Watergate” exhilarates. Ferguson has an eye for character, with Congresswomen Barbara Jordan and, especially, Elizabeth Holtzman emerging as fascinating figures about whom the viewer will want to learn more.
Ferguson is scrupulously careful to avoid making reference to the present, only alluding to it in the film’s subtitle, “How We Learned to Stop an Out-of-Control President.” That lesson was taught by members of Congress, journalists, and citizens whose names are fading from memory, and who provide “Watergate’s” most lasting pleasures. Their voices resonate more than that of a disgraced President, and provide more lasting nourishment.