Five years ago when Oscar-nominated documentarian Charles Ferguson (“Inside Job”) started deeply researching the 1972 Watergate break-in, he was chasing a documentary thriller that would be fun to watch. A & E and History were on board. But as the political climate dramatically transformed, he wound up with a more sober narrative, which debuted at the fall festivals ahead of an October theatrical run of the four-hour version. On television, the series airs in six one-hour episodes playing over three nights, starting November 2 as part of “History 100,” a History Channel documentary series comprised of 100 films focused on compelling historical events of the last 100 years.
When A&E commissioned “Watergate,” everyone expected Hillary Clinton was going to be president. “We had no idea how timely it would be,” said A&E chief Molly Thompson. “That’s the way things played out. Watching a cut of the film feels like watching the nightly news.”
Having watched the hearings on television as a college student, Ferguson felt the full Watergate story was neglected, despite all the scrutiny from books and films like Oscar-winner “All the President’s Men.” “It never received the treatment it deserved,” he said. “It was a remarkably complicated story.”
Originally he had fun with scenes like G. Gordon Liddy sneaking through the bushes at the country club. “As the world changed,” said Ferguson, “it became clear that I had to make a more serious film. It became clear I could no longer make that kind of film. Instead I made a more serious film emphasizing what it says about our institutions when they work and when they don’t, and how they can be made to work even when they are flawed, when they depend on individuals.”
As he started production in late 2016, one way to bring those pesky oval office scenes in the White House back to life was through re-enactments with actors on a set. The transcripts of telephone and office conversations are deadly to listen to, with poor audio quality, constant digressions, and atrocious grammar. “Some are incoherent and incomprehensible,” said Ferguson. “I wouldn’t want to inflict an hour of that on people. Everything was said, every single word, in the order they’re saying it. Nothing was added and changed; all I did was edit not for grammar but for length. I picked snippets when they spoke grammatically and used those. Grammar wasn’t Nixon’s strong point.”
One of the revelations in the movie is how Republican Senator Howard Baker and minority counsel Fred Thompson (whose Watergate celebrity fueled a later career as an actor) “for the first several months of the Senate Watergate committee activities were moles for the White House,” said Ferguson. After the committee discovered it, the leaders held more closed-door meetings. “The problem went away when Baker and Thompson realized that Nixon was deeply involved and it was going to come out and it was no longer useful and profitable for them to work for Nixon.”
Of course, central to the narrative is White House counsel John Dean. “He wasn’t a complete villain,” said Ferguson, who engaged in sharp exchanges with him during their extensive interviews. “But Mr. Dean tried to portray himself to me as somebody who made the decision to tell everything to the prosecutors as a matter of principle. I’m extremely skeptical of that view. There’s a great deal of evidence on my side; the evidence suggested that Mr. Dean acted more as a matter of self-interest. He was saving his own skin.”
As for FBI player Mark Felt, who after 30 years admitted his identity as The Washington Post’s Deep Throat, few people seem to like him, Ferguson said. “He doesn’t have many fans. He was an ambitious, amoral climber who multiple times had taken credit for other people’s work and maneuvered to banish rivals into Siberia. He was a creature of J. Edgar Hoover and defended Hoover, did his bidding in a number of unpleasant ways. He himself conducted a number of illegal secures and burglaries. He was not a nice guy. He performed a very valuable function, but he did it out of anger at the way the FBI was used by Nixon, self-interest in wanting to be the director of the FBI, and revenge against Patrick White, who got appointed.”
What has changed today? “Obviously there’s a lot more partisan behavior,” said Ferguson. “Some of that is unfortunate but sincere. I think of it as theater, because alongside the intensification of partisanship, the important thing that has happened in the last 45 years since Watergate, is that becoming a member of the House or Senate is basically punching a ticket on the way to what you want, which is a high income lobbying career. When Watergate happened, less than 20 percent became lobbyists. That number is now over 60 percent, and that has a big effect on what kind of person wants to become a member of Congress and on their conduct.”
The other big difference between then and now is “how intelligent and serious and principled many people in government were,” said Ferguson, “in a way we no longer expect. And it is unfortunately no longer true, in the Supreme Court and every part of government, not just Congress. And there’s no question there’s a different process of getting elected. Our current political condition is very dispiriting. It is worse. The average election is considerably worse than it was then.
Dan Rather’s interviews are revealing about how the media worked at the time. “On the one hand the media in general is more aggressive and more willing to confront the government and president than it used to be,” said Ferguson. “Which is a good thing. A the same time there is also less of the kind of individual courage you saw in the Watergate period, when the president of CBS news was willing to stand up to William Paley and Katharine Graham did what she did at The Washington Post.”
Finding the right shape and form for the TV mini-series was challenging and much debated. While he showed a foour-hour cut to qualify for the Oscars, the television series was capped at six hours. Ferguson could easily fashioned something as long as 20 hours “with no reduction in pace and intensity,” he said, sighing. “There was so much I had to leave out. Many young people are surprised that 41 people were criminally convicted in connection with Watergate, and that 18 of America’s largest companies pled guilty to a crime, illegal campaign contributions, conspiracy, money laundering, things like that.”
Ferguson hopes more material will be made available to scholars or to the public.