Stephen Arnell

A cinematic guide to Watergate

A cinematic guide to Watergate
Julia Roberts and Sean Penn star in Gaslit (Image: Starz)
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This June will mark half a century since police arrested five of Richard Nixon’s ‘plumbers’ breaking into the Democratic National Committee offices in Washington DC’s Watergate complex.

This anniversary appears to have given TV executives the impetus to commission a wave of shows about the break in and its world-changing (if not an overstatement) after-effects.

Both upcoming drama Gaslit (STARZ, from April 24th) and Netflix's documentary The Martha Mitchell Effect concern the outspoken spouse of Nixon’s loyal Attorney General John N. Mitchell, who (to her husband’s ire) helped blow the whistle on Watergate.

For her efforts, Mitchell was hounded and vilified as a drunk by Nixon’s cronies, with the former President declaring to David Frost that 'if it hadn't been for Martha Mitchell, there'd have been no Watergate'.

Julia Roberts takes the role of Martha Mitchell in Gaslit whilst Sean Penn is her corrupted husband.

Also on the horizon is the HBO Mini-series The White House Plumbers, which takes a more comedic look at the antics of the bungling burglars.

A star cast includes Woody Harrelson, Justin Theroux, Judy Greer, Kiernan Shipka, and Lena Headey.

Back in the 1970s, two TV mini-series made about the Nixon era are still worth a look.

Blind Ambition (CBS, 1979) starred Martin Sheen as Nixon White House counsel John Dean, with Rip Torn (Larry Sanders) as #37.

I found the earlier, fictionalised Washington: Behind Closed Doors (ABC, 1977) the superior of the two shows, due to the performances of Jason Robards as paranoid President Richard Monckton (Nixon) and Andy Griffiths as his folksy but sly predecessor Esker Scott Anderson (Lyndon Johnson).

More recently, US political scandals came under the mini-series microscope in The Comey Rule (2020 - Trump) and Impeachment: American Crime Story (2021 – Clinton).

A look at Watergate in the movies:

Dick (1999) Amazon Rent/Buy

Watergate is seen through a humorous lens in Andrew Fleming’s enjoyable satire.

DC teens Betsy (Kirsten Dunst) and Arlene (Michelle Williams) inadvertently become the legendary informer ‘Deep Throat’ after learning about the President’s misdeeds when appointed Nixon’s ‘official dog-walkers’.

None of the actual participants in the crisis come out well in the movie; Nixon (an excellent Dan Hedaya) is repugnant, Woodard & Bernstein (Will Ferrell and Bruce McCulloch) are incompetent chancers whilst Kissinger (Saul Rubinek) breaks into a chorus of ‘Hello Dolly’ after munching a hash cookie.

Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House (2017), Amazon Rent/Buy

Liam Neeson plays the real ‘Deep Throat’ in this satisfyingly old-fashioned biopic, which is a good primer if you’d never heard of FBI Deputy Director Mark Felt’s role in revealing Nixon as the prime mover in Watergate.

There is a foreshadowing of Trump and Comey in the attempts by Nixon’s confidantes to subvert the agency’s investigation into the break-in.

It was only in 2005, at age of 91, that Felt disclosed in Vanity Fair that he was indeed the leaker, although he was suspected to be the source by those in the know for a considerable time.

Neeson is pretty good as Felt, and the supporting cast are strong, but I confess to preferring the late Hal Brooks more charismatic turn as DT in All the President's Men (1976).

Frost/Nixon (2008) IMDb TV, Amazon Rent/Buy

Ron Howard’s screen adaptation of Peter (The Crown) Morgan’s hit play retained the stage casting of Michael Sheen (David Frost) and Frank Langella (Nixon), despite the fact that the two actors famously disliked each other.

Langella quipped that the play should have been renamed Nixon/Frost.

The action (such as it is) centres around David Frost’s reputation-saving (at least until the lure of the likes of Through the Keyhole took hold again) interviews with the disgraced ex-President, where he memorably cajoled a semi-confession from Nixon.

The Assassination of Richard Nixon (2004)

Niels Mueller’s movie depicted the true story of washed-up office furniture/tire salesman and disturbed fantasist Samuel Byck/Bicke (Sean Penn) who blames President Nixon for his many personal, financial and professional woes.

Watergate and the news of a helicopter conducting an unauthorised fly-by of the White House spurred Byck into a failed attempt to hijack a passenger jet with the intention of crashing it into the President’s residence.

Something that was attempted to a similar lack of success 26 years later on September 11th, 2001.

Penn is typically intense, but the viewer may find little to emphasise in playing such a grating character.

Elvis & Nixon (2016) IMDb TV, Plex, Amazon Rent/Buy

I could have chosen the more serious 1989 TV movie The Final Days (based on the 1976 Woodward/Bernstein follow-up to All The President’s Men), but instead I have opted for the lighter Elvis & Nixon.

The presence of Kevin Spacey as Nixon could be problematic, given the actor’s fall from grace, but he turns in a decent performance.

Michael Shannon has fun as Elvis who actually did meet Dick in the White House pre-Watergate in December 1970, when the singer volunteered his services in the war on drugs, whilst supposedly stoned out of his mind on a smorgasbord of barbiturates.

The King was successful in his quest – as he persuaded Nixon to give him a Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs badge.

Sammy-Gate (2020) MUBI

This offbeat low-budget satire posits Watergate as a plot by Howard Hughes to destabilize Nixon (Phil Proctor), who has recruited entertainer Sammy Davis Jr (Richard Beatty) to investigate why so many GIs returning from Vietnam are addicted to heroin, and who is flooding black inner cities with the drug.

Director Noel Lawrence described his film as 'Psychedelic History', which, as far as it goes, is fairly accurate – and as with Elvis Presley, not too far from the truth.

As an aside, IMDb states that Lawrence is also involved with an extended version of 1982’s Eddie Murphy/Nick Nolte action comedy 48 Hours.

The twist being that the film will run for a full 48 hours in duration.

All The President's Men (1976) BBC iPlayer, Amazon Rent/Buy

It would be impossible not to include Alan J. Pakula’s definitive movie about Watergate.

Despite the absence of shoot-outs and car chases, ATPM has its fair share of tension, with a storyline that the viewer must pay attention to.

I suspect that neither the real-life Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein were particularly upset that they were played in the movie by Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman.

Coincidently, akin to Hoffman’s character Babe Levy in the same year’s Marathon Man, Bernstein’s father was a communist sympathiser.

A thinly veiled version of the journalist was played by Jack Nicholson in 1986 dramedy Heartburn.

Nixon (1995) Amazon Rent/Buy

Oliver Stone’s bum-numbing epic has its moments, but sadly Anthony Hopkins’ performance as ‘Gloomy Gus’ (an early Nixon nickname) is not one of them.

Try as he might, Hopkins cannot capture Nixon’s vocal cadences and his decision to play the role as a cross between spavined TV host Ed Sullivan and Laurence Olivier’s Richard III doesn’t pay off.

Neither did his opting for false teeth in the part, which bore an unfortunate and distracting resemblance to a boxer’s gumshield.

Bob Hoskins also seems out of place as J. Edgar Hoover (Washington DC by way of Stepney Green), but the quartet of James Woods (John Ehrlichman), JT Walsh (John Ehrlichman) Paul Sorvino (Henry Kissinger) and Powers Boothe (General Alexander Haig) are good value.

Secret Honor (1984) free to watch on YouTube

There are further shades of Donald Trump in Robert Altman’s (Gosford Park) Secret Honor, based on the play by Donald Freed and Arnold M. Stone.

A disgraced Nixon (the great Philip Baker Hall) stalks his lonely New Jersey mansion reeling off a self-pitying rant of grievances, enemies, conspiracies, self-justifications, and betrayals.

And that’s about it for 90 minutes, which makes Secret Honor a superbly acted, but wearying slog.

The entire movie is free to enjoy (if that is the right word) on YouTube.

Happy Viewing!

The Post (2017) Amazon Rent/Buy

No real surprises in Steven Spielberg’s movie about Watergate precursor The Pentagon Papers, just the pleasure of watching a well-made, well-acted motion picture.

In 1971 Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) chooses to defy the Nixon administration and publish extracts of the classified documents which detail successive US governments assessments that the war in Vietnam is unwinnable.

For a truly offbeat take on Watergate, you may want to check out Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s Nasty Habits (1977) an adaptation of Muriel Spark's The Abbess of Crewe (1974), transposing Nixon’s scandal into the environs of a wealthy Philadelphia convent.

Glenda Jackson is Sister Alexandra, Tricky Dick’s on-the-make clerical avatar, with Melina Mercouri (Topkapi) as Sister Gertrude, the institution’s equivalent of Henry Kissinger.