Watergate doc remembers Tricky Dick's chicanery in rich detail

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      A documentary by Charles Ferguson. Rating unavailable

      Many people think that the political chicanery we're witnessing now makes the 1972 crimes enacted by minions of then president Richard Nixon look like puny stuff. It wasn't.

      Using a combination of archival footage, interviews with John Dean and other principal survivors of the event (everyone but Henry Kissinger is here), Nixon's own secret audiotapes, and reenactments built around those tapes, the six-part Watergate—comprising an unexpectedly swift four hours and 20 minutes—makes it clear that the infamous "third-rate burglary" was only the tip of the shitberg where abuse of power was concerned.

      In retrospect, one cannot separate Nixon's fatal moves during his reelection bid (chaired by his very own attorney general!) from glaring duplicity in 1968, when he ran as the "peace candidate". He wooed the antiwar movement while secretly scuttling Lyndon Johnson's talks with North Vietnam.

      Upon election, he immediately expanded the conflict into neighbouring countries, and turned the FBI loose on leftists and black activists. His propensity for political deceit and real-world violence disillusioned followers like military analyst Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers, detailing the government's lies, and setting in motion the kind of president-versus-press combat we see today, writ even larger.

      First, Ellsberg's psychiatrist's office in L.A. was burgled, then the Democratic headquarters in the Watergate complex in D.C., giving the scandal its name. Nixon had already drawn up a grotesque enemies list, including figures as diverse as Joe Namath and Carol Channing, and he contemplated subsequent smear jobs, literal assassinations, and even firebombings—few of which came to fruition, fortunately. But hardly a nothingburger by anyone's standards.

      The sordid tale is a deftly structured true-crime saga, with writer-director Charles Ferguson narrating. (His Inside Job, about the 2008 market collapse, won an Oscar.)

      Those reenactments are the weakest parts. Nixon's imitation machismo, virulent anti-Semitism, and paranoid ranting in private while smiling through flop-sweat in public already put his Shakespearean flaws in full relief.

      The actorly scenes do set up even more exciting video footage of the Watergate hearings, which riveted the nation throughout 1973. The closing installment highlights some almost-forgotten heroes, including newly minted congresswomen Barbara Jordan and Elizabeth Holtzman, who grilled high mucky-mucks with zero deference.

      Many Republicans of the day acquit themselves well, too, putting principles over party, and eloquently so. The system worked, sort of.

      "But," as one participant said, just after Nixon finally resigned, "next time there might not be a watchman in the night."