There’s a bit of a shock when the late John McCain shows up as an interview subject toward the end of Charles Ferguson’s “Watergate,” a comprehensive but frustratingly inessential retelling of how a crime blossomed into a constitutional crisis (you might have read about it). The senator isn’t on screen for long, but it only takes him a few seconds to summarize a profound truth at the heart of this epic documentary: “One thing we politicians are very good at,” he says with a smile, “is kidding ourselves about how well-liked we are.” McCain is talking about Richard Nixon, but — after four hours of watching this film painstakingly connect the dots between then and now — it’s obvious that he’s not only talking about Richard Nixon. Nobody is.
No matter how deep into the weeds Ferguson gets, there isn’t a minute of this movie that doesn’t feel self-consciously subsumed into Donald Trump’s dark and bloated shadow. Our current President is never mentioned by name, but the context for this hyper-detailed history lesson is clear from the opening credits, where the full title card reads: “Watergate: Or How We Learned to Stop an Out of Control President.” Remind you of anyone?
From there, Ferguson mostly lets the facts speak for themselves, as the rhymes between past and present are too many and dumbing to not be self-evident. If anything, the echoes are so clear that Ferguson’s occasional bits of light editorialization only feel like gilding the lily (e.g. when the director’s narration argues that Nixon’s final days in office were spent trying to impress his Soviet counterpart, like a big boy). The parallels between Watergate and Trumpocalypse are so boggling that they preclude any other reason for why Ferguson chose to make this film now. And yet, it’s the film’s deliberate timing that calls its value into question.
If Ferguson’s Oscar-winning “Inside Job” was a post-mortem, “Watergate” is — per its title — something of a how-to guide. If you squint, it can also be taken as reassurance that things are proceeding toward impeachment, or as an urgent reminder that Congress needs to find its spine if America is ever going to be able to stand up straight again.
The first part of the film falls between news of the Watergate break-in and the start of the hearings, Ferguson dutifully assembling the timeline like a jigsaw puzzle of corruption. His narration is clean and efficient, his talking heads include all the major players (Dan Rather, Daniel Ellsberg, Morton Halperin, John Dean, Carl Bernstein, etc.), and his oblique nods to Trump don’t stop the movie in its tracks (how casually he mentions that Roger Ailes worked for Nixon). It’s a Wikipedia page in motion — season one of the “Slow Burn” podcast, with visual accompaniment.
It’s a shame that Ferguson tried to make it anything more than that. Instead, he chooses to dramatize the infamous Nixon tapes across a series of painful re-creations in which actors who (at best) bear a passing resemblance to the likes of Nixon and Henry Kissinger stomp around an Oval Office set and perform the transcripts word for word, reducing some of the most significant dialogues of the 20th century into the stuff of bad community theater. Snippets of the actual audio play before transitioning to his hired players, as if that would make the re-enactments feel more credible. Realizing that they strained credulity should have been Ferguson’s first clue that they were wildly out of place in a documentary otherwise defined by archival footage and first-hand testimony.
The second part of “Watergate,” which focuses almost exclusively on the bombshell hearings and the string of bullshit Nixon press conferences that followed, is far more consistent. While the scandal generates a fair share of suspense, Ferguson stitches it all together with the clarity and purpose of a shrewd academic. The filmmaker is magnetized to the uneasy parallels between Nixon and Trump, but he frames the narrative in a way that makes them feel inextricable from the fabric of history — not as the byproducts of context or select evidence, but as facts that are as undeniable as the scandal itself.
When Nixon lost to Kennedy, he blamed the media and called for investigations into his enemies. On his way out the door, disgraced Vice President Spiro Agnew blamed the media’s “unchecked power” for his political trouble. Nixon was outraged at how he was portrayed on the TV news, and lashed out at “The Jews” — his preference for favorable coverage led him to disastrously misjudge public opinion on several occasions. And on and on and on.
The differences, however, are just as striking. Nixon, Ferguson makes sure to remind us, was fiercely loyal to his friends, and heartbroken when they had to pay the price for his actions. Unlike Trump, Nixon wasn’t the imbecilic godhead of a cult of personality, and the Republicans of his day weren’t afraid to stand up to their President. On the other hand, “Watergate” reminds us that it only takes one fallen domino to cause a major ripple effect and send Nixon out of the White House with his tail between his legs. As one person said it: “Not only is the President just a man, he’s a criminal.” Some things never change.
And so it’s ironic that the film ends up suffering from its careful timing. As an educational look back at Watergate, it feels like a relatively efficient streamlining of something most of us know well enough. It has less value as a dusty mirror that reflects back on our current national crisis, as we poor souls have the misfortune of having to live through this nightmare every day, and the idea that “this too shall pass” is small consolation to those who are suffering the worst of it and waiting for someone to do the right thing.
But even if Ferguson made “Watergate” with Trump in mind, his smartest decision was not to make it identify Trump by name. Because in all likelihood, it’s too late for us to learn anything from this, or to feel much of anything beyond the horror and humiliation of allowing it to happen again. On the other hand, it’s easy to imagine how this documentary might one day be worth the time it takes to watch it — one day, in the blissful lull between crooked autocrats, when the American people are at risk of forgetting how easy our democracy is to exploit, and how difficult it would be to salvage.
“Watergate” premiered at the 2018 Telluride Film Festival. History will release it in theaters October 12, before airing it on the History Channel November 2-4.