'Watergate' review: Charles Ferguson's latest is simultaneously a blast from the past and a caution for the future
'Watergate: Or How We Learned To Stop An Out of Control President,' is more than a simple retelling of the scandal that rocked the Nixon administration.
Academy Award-winning documentary filmmaker Charles Ferguson has never been one to shy away from confronting politically charged topics as the subjects of his works. His first, 'No End in Sight: The American Occupation of Iraq' was a detailed look at the conduct of the George Bush administration in the Iraq war and the US occupation of the country; his second, 'Inside Job,' would win him the prestigious Oscar and was a feature-length documentary about the staggering mismanagement by both government and Wall Street execs that resulted in the financial crisis of 2007-2008 that brought the world economy to its knees; 'Time to Choose' similarly attempts to address climate change across the world and possible challenges and solutions; But 'Watergate' would be the first time that Ferguson would try to shine a light on an explicitly political issue; one that would define American politics and public perception of the office of the presidency for generations to come.
I'll be the first to admit that my knowledge of the Watergate scandal was purely surface level. I knew that President Richard Nixon was on the verge of becoming the first sitting U.S president to become impeached and that he quit to save himself from that infamy — very much an "Oh, you're going to fire me? Well, I quit" situation. But everything else that Ferguson was going to present in the documentary would be brand new information to me; information that I had long been intrigued about but didn't know how to pursue.
In that sense, Ferguson's coverage of the entire scandal is comprehensive. The story unfolds from the very beginning, starting from the public perception of the highly unpopular Vietnam war, the rapidly-budding counterculture movement, and the chaos in the Democratic party following the deaths of John F. Kennedy and brother Bobby Kennedy that Nixon would use to his benefit to first win the presidency and then re-election. He would deploy some underhanded tactics to unsettle his Democratic opponents the second time around, winning the presidency by a landslide, though the still-ongoing Vietnam war that had assisted him the first time around would prove to be his downfall.
Broken promises and escalation in the war saw media pressure mount on Nixon, who increasingly felt he was being unfairly criticized. It prompted him to okay the break-in at the Democratic headquarters in Watergate and set forth the chain of events that saw him eventually step down from the presidency, but not without a fight that resulted in a constitutional crisis for the country. It's somewhere around here that my suspicions began to grow a little about what this documentary was about because let's be honest, the parallels are quite uncanny. Nonetheless, it would only be after I reached the end-credit scenes that all the dots connected.
"Those who do not learn from the past are condemned to repeat it." Such an odd and seemingly out-of-place message to include at the end of a documentary about Watergate. Or is it? My attention then turned to the entire title of the documentary, 'Watergate: Or How We Learned To Stop An Out of Control President," and the message became crystal clear. There isn't a single occasion where the current president, Donald Trump, is mentioned by name in the documentary, but you can't help but feel that his shadow looms large over it anyway.
That's because, subliminally, you can't help but notice how the current administration is a poor imitation of Nixon's. One of Trump's most significant narratives has been that of "fake news" from the liberal media who he feels constantly twist and misrepresents his words. Nixon's administration was engaged in a heated faceoff with the likes of the New York Times and the Washington Post that saw the Supreme Court intervene and rule that the papers were within their rights to publish sensitive Vietnam War documents. Nixon's hatred for this liberal media would be the reason that Roger Ailes, a media consultant for Nixon, would go on to found Fox News to support Republican views.
Then there's the appearance of the John McCain in the documentary. The late Senator was a prisoner of war when the Watergate scandal was unfolding in the US, but in his brief appearance proclaims one of the most self-evident, yet oblivious truths that define American politics as we know it. "One thing we politicians are very good at," he says with an all-knowing smile, "is kidding ourselves about how well-liked we are." Ring a bell? If you thought of Trump, you would be right. If you thought of Nixon, you would still be right. And herein lies the theme that's coursing through the entirety of the documentary. Sure, it's fact-based, cold, hard reporting of the Watergate scandal. But it's also simultaneously a subtle commentary on how the present-day administration is echoing the worst facets of the most disruptive and unpopular government in the country's history.
At the same time, almost as if to twist the knife in further, Ferguson does highlight some of Nixon's more positive qualities. While Trump is the first to distance himself from those that have exited his administration in disgrace, Nixon is shown to be fiercely loyal to those around him. When the time comes to take a decision to fire his aides to protect the presidency, he can be heard to be genuinely distressed. His efforts to forge peace with the Soviet Union and withdraw soldiers from South Vietnam were commendable too, though neither came about without its fair share of ulterior motives.
This running political commentary, however, does take the sheen off the documentary and makes it lose its value despite its insightfulness. While Ferguson's previous critically-acclaimed documentaries such as 'No End In Sight' and 'Inside Job' were post-mortem examinations that attempted to dissect and study critically, 'Watergate' tries to be a reflective piece on the current political landscape. It comes across rather poorly on an otherwise surgically-constructed retelling, giving the viewer an impression that it's scattered in its ambitions.
Nonetheless, Ferguson has assembled quite the potent list of interviewees in helping him break down the story into easily digestible chunks. The likes of Dan Rather, Daniel Ellsberg, Morton Halperin, John Dean, and Carl Bernstein all feature as he draws out the timeline of events that led from Nixon winning his re-election by a landslide to him exiting the White House with his tail between his legs in 1974. Topically relevant and gripping, 'Watergate' is synchronously a blast from the past and a caution for the future.
Ferguson's 'Watergate: Or How We Learned to Stop an Out of Control President' ' will premiere on the History Channel November 2.