The Watergate break-in, which kicked off the two-year scandal that resulted in the only presidential resignation in U.S. history, took place on June 17, 1972, which was 50 years ago last week.
The scandal has been the subject of dozens of books, as well as TV shows, most notably STARZ’s Gaslit, which looked at the scandal through the eyes of Martha Mitchell, the wife of Attorney General and Watergate figure John N. Mitchell.
Watergate also led to quite a few movies, including many documentaries, but there are five feature films that really stand above in terms of how they told the story of the Watergate affair:
All the President’s Men (1976)
This is, of course, the definitive Watergate movie. Based on the book of the same name by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the book follows their investigation, from the morning after the break-in, as the two reporters (played by Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman) work sources and deal with their editors (led by Jason Robards‘ Ben Bradlee).
It’s a movie about Watergate in which neither Nixon nor most of his “men” even exist as characters, while perhaps the film’s most famous device is the use of Hal Holbrook as Woodward’s famous source, Deep Throat.
I’ve probably seen All the President’s Men at least 50 times, and I’ve always loved that at heart it’s a thriller ― the kind of conspiracy theory that ruled the roost in the mid-1970s.
It also has one of the best endings in the history of movies. The film only follows the investigation through early 1973, while speeding through the next 18 months of indictments and convictions in a brilliant montage of words on a typewriter:
Almost 25 years later came another great movie about Watergate, albeit one looking at the scandal from a wildly different angle.
Dick takes a satirical look at Watergate, telling something of an alternate history of the scandal while filling in the then-mysteries with humorous explanations. The idea of the movie is that the then-very young Michelle Williams and Kirsten Dunst are playing dog-walkers for President Nixon (Dan Hedaya) when they stumble upon various Watergate secrets.
The film solves what really happened with the 18 1/2-minute gap, the identity of Deep Throat, and others ― all while thoroughly mining the audience’s familiarity with every last detail of Watergate.
Dick‘s ending is pretty great, too:
Secret Honor (1984)
Actor Philip Baker Hall passed away last week, and while many shared clips of his guest appearance on Seinfeld and his “butter in my ass, lollipops in my mouth” speech from Boogie Nights, another oft-mentioned performance in the remembrances of the actor was Secret Honor, Robert Altman‘s 1984 film that was essentially a one-man show with Hall as Nixon.
The film had Hall scampering around Nixon’s mansion in New Jersey, sometime after leaving office, and re-litigating Watergate and the other controversies of his presidency.
Hall looks and sounds way more like himself than he does the former president, but he still pulls off a wildly impressive high-wire act.
If you haven’t seen Secret Honor, it’s on YouTube in full:
Based on the play by Peter Morgan, Ron Howard‘s Frost/Nixon was just as interested in the mechanics of TV news than in Nixon’s crimes.
The film tells the story of the time a post-White House Nixon (Frank Langella) was interviewed on television by British broadcaster David Frost (Michael Sheen). The first half of the film is about the machinations and negotiations behind the interview, including both men’s self-serving reasons for doing it, while the second half is mostly taken up with the interviews themselves.
It’s structured like a heavyweight fight, with Nixon getting off to a lead in the early rounds, but Frost fighting back at the end:
Oliver Stone, during his absolute height of power in the 1990s, made an ambitious, three-hour biopic about Nixon, one that covered Watergate and other aspects of his presidency, and actually came out with a more sympathetic portrayal of Nixon than one would expect from Stone.
The film came out about a year and a half after Nixon’s 1994 death, and at a time when Watergate and Nixon’s presidency were still fresh in the memory of many audiences.
Anthony Hopkins played Nixon quite well, without any facial prosthetics, and he was surrounded by an all-star cast. Though, it’s not anywhere close to the best movie Stone made in that period, or even the best one he made about a president.