‘Still grappling with it’ — 50 years of Watergate on film

A half-century ago Friday, the break-in at the Democratic National Committee offices at the Watergate complex in Foggy Bottom led to an investigation that gripped the country for two years and led to the only American presidential resignation. This week, WTOP’s Rick Massimo is talking with experts about how the entire affair has affected American politics, history and even the language ever since.

The movies have portrayed Watergate for almost the entire half-century since it happened, and the ways they’ve depicted the break-in and scandal have led and reflected Americans’ views of the entire affair.

The first, most obvious, movie to bring up in a conversation with WTOP film critic Jason Fraley was “All the President’s Men.” It came out in 1976, on the heels of the book of the same name by then-Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, who broke many (but not all) of the most important stories in the saga. The most memorable shots and moments of the film have shaped the way generations have viewed Watergate.

“You had Deep Throat in the shadows of the parking garages in Virginia,” Fraley said. “When [Robert Redford, who played Woodward] first sees him, all you see is the light of his cigarette leaning around the pillar in the garage.”

(It’s also worth noting that probably the most famous line of “All the President’s Men” is Deep Throat’s “Follow the money,” which is something the real Deep Throat never said — it was an invention of screenwriter William Goldman.)

Director Alan Pakula made sure the shots echoed the mood, Fraley added: “When Redford leaves the meetings with Deep Throat, Pakula’s camera sort of tracks along beside him, and even zooms in on his face really fast as he gasps. And the sound cuts out and it’s like — it almost feels like he’s being watched and followed. And us, as the viewers, sort of feel that creepy paranoia.”

In another memorable moment, Fraley remembered, Redford and Hoffman speak in an apartment with the music turned up so loud they can barely hear each other, because they’re worried the apartment is bugged. And before a teletype closes the film with news about Nixon’s resignation, Redford and Hoffman are last seen bashing away at their typewriters, ignoring a TV broadcasting Nixon’s second inauguration, a coronation their work will soon reverse.

“It still might be the best print journalism movie ever made,” Fraley said.

After “All the President’s Men” came a wave of what Fraley called a “loose trilogy of famous actors playing Nixon in acclaimed, sometimes Oscar-nominated turns, for very famous directors.”

That trifecta begins with 1984’s “Secret Honor,” which saw Philip Baker Hall playing Nixon in an adaptation directed by Robert Altman of the one-man stage play of the same name. The film is billed as “a political myth,” and Hall rages, whines and yells at the paintings in his post-presidency office, in the process revealing the “real” reason Watergate happened.

(Warning: This scene contains language. Also, Chekov’s rule regarding guns is broken.)

The legendary Anthony Hopkins played the former president in Oliver Stone’s “Nixon,” which came out in 1995, the year after the real Nixon’s death, and Frank Langella was nominated for an Oscar in Ron Howard’s “Frost/Nixon” in 2008, a historically informed fictionalization of the legendary 1977 extended interview between British journalist David Frost and the former president, in which Nixon blurts out the famous line “Well, when the president does it, that means that it is not illegal.”

Of the three, Fraley said Langella was his favorite: “There was a gruffness to him that I always associated with Nixon. … He really came across like he was living in denial that ever happened.”

By then, however, the Watergate saga was far enough in the rear view mirror as to be fodder for satire — specifically 1999’s “Dick,” which posited that Deep Throat, the key informant for the reporting duo of Woodward and Bernstein, was in fact two 15-year-olds, one of whom falls in love with Nixon. Woodward and Bernstein are played by Will Ferrell and The Kids In the Hall’s Bruce McCulloch; White House staffers H.R. Haldeman and G. Gordon Liddy are portrayed by Dave Foley and Harry Shearer; pot-laced cookies and roller skating in the Oval Office are involved.

“Enough time had passed where we were sort of poking fun at it,” Fraley said.

And as the 50th anniversary approaches, Fraley pointed to two brand-new entries into the Watergate canon: “18 ½,” a thriller-comedy that director Dan Mirvish told Fraley was a comedy-thriller that posits an alternative history of the famous gap in the Nixon Oval Office tapes; and “Gaslit,” a Starz miniseries starring Julia Roberts as Martha Mitchel, the — um, colorful wife of Attorney General John Mitchell (played by an unrecognizable Sean Penn). She was one of the first people to start talking publicly about how much rot lay beneath the “third-rate burglary” of Watergate; he ended up going to jail for his role in the affair.

From a straight retelling to character portraits to hallucinatory histories, the stories filmmakers tell about Watergate change as the times and attitudes change. A half-century later, Fraley says, “Filmmakers today are still grappling with it.”

Rick Massimo

Rick Massimo came to WTOP, and to Washington, in 2012 after having lived in Providence, R.I., since he was a child. He went to George Washington University as an undergraduate and is regularly surprised at the changes to the city since that faraway time.

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