Charles Ferguson’s Timely ‘Watergate’ Doc Is Routine But Vital [NYFF Review]

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It’s been a hell of a week. A divided, partisan country ripped at the seams and what was once a split has become an unnavigable chasm. The protracted and ugly Supreme Court confirmation hearing for Brett Kavanaugh turned into a culture war — left vs. right, men vs. women — when a courageous woman came forward with sexual assault allegations against the nominee and instead of a thorough investigation from the FBI, the country was given a contentious set of hearings Thursday. And while it might seem naive or Coastal, it’s hard to imagine that anyone out there didn’t already have an unyielding opinion that was only exacerbated throughout this whole, repugnant process.

From the depths of this collective despair, it’s hard to see the light on the other side — some sort of unifying kinship that allows us to no longer detest (or at least lack respect for) our neighbors, though it is easy to remember less contentious times (both those fueled by war and those that just simply weren’t batshit crazy). It is therefore easy to forget that this level of chaos has consumed our government and our country before: Watergate. The scandal of all American scandals, Watergate truly was the sort of Constitutional crisis that people claim is encroaching today. This impossible-to-miss parallel is a good portion of what gives Charles Ferguson’s new six-part docu-series “Watergate” its urgency. It’s also what is most likely to glue you to your seat for 260 minutes of this thorough and engaging, but generally uninspiring, film.

It seems as though comparisons with Richard Nixon and Donald Trump began almost as soon as the latter was sworn into office. The lies that had propped up his campaign persisted right on into his presidency and investigations into potential ties with Russia were set into motion. For those who remember Watergate, the similarities are evident. The problem lies in all the myriad complexities of the whole affair and the fact that an entire generation has grown up without ever really needing to know (or being taught) about it. As more young adults realize their gaps in knowledge, podcasts, movies, and documentaries about the scandal are materializing everywhere.

A couple of things give “Watergate” a leg up over some of the competition. First, its director, Ferguson, is an accomplished, Oscar-winning filmmaker (“Inside Job”) and his ability to make sense of an overwhelming amount of complex information is on display. Second is that his format (a 260-minute movie with an intermission and a six-part series) allows for every nook and cranny of this wild story to be explored and fleshed out. And lastly, it’s the unprecedented amount of access Ferguson got. Not only did he score interviews with John Dean, a former White House lawyer who was more or less the architect of Nixon’s downfall, but also with critical players from Nixon’s inner circle who remain loyalists to this day.

Trying to explain or unravel the Watergate story feels superfluous. The asinine stupidity, thin skin and blinding ambition that led to the break-in, the cover-up and the obstruction of justice are almost too confounding to try to sketch out in simple terms. The artfulness of Ferguson’s film is that it makes everything relatively clear — or as unambiguous as possible at least. While the scandal unfolds, it feels, for all the petty absurdity, like it makes sense.

What trips up “Watergate” most is the awkward reenactments. A large chunk of the film is built around recreating scenes from inside Nixon’s Oval Office using dialogue from the tapes Nixon himself recorded. The things that were said are often hard to believe — the open corruption and lack of respect for anyone who didn’t see eye-to-eye with Nixon or his cronies are particularly galling. But the scenes are filmed with such flat lighting, staging, and direction that they feel like exactly what they are: clumsy reenactments. While they get across what Nixon was saying, the scenes, at times, undercut any tension the film had created, especially considering how well crafted the rest of Ferguson’s work is. The interviews are thorough and revealing, and the archive footage does plenty of legwork so that while there is nothing particularly revolutionary about the film, it does what it needs to.

To be certain, though, Ferguson’s doc is politically charged. The full title of his film, “Watergate — Or: How We Learned To Stop An Out Of Control President,” seems to wear its intentions on its sleeve. This is a movie that is meant to say as much about today as it is to say about the early 1970s. And while it’s hard to argue now that Nixon was out of control, at the time he was a highly regarded leader (not long after the Watergate break-in he carried 49 states in the 1972 election). Still, there was a line. Even people who had aided Nixon’s cover-up and obstruction efforts, like John Dean and Sen. Howard Baker, eventually came around. They were persuaded by truths and reason — or at least the understanding that a damning set of facts could be used against them, whether in a court of law or by voters. It is hard today, however, to see a future wherein this country can once again agree on a set of facts or be guided by shared reason. Ferguson’s film, then, can be seen as one of two things: a naive misunderstanding of the parallels between two grave Constitutional crises, or an optimistic insistence that we’ve been to the brink of disaster before and survived. [B-]

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