The Watergate movie that got it right.
In the days since Mark Felt outed himself as Deep Throat, the requisite cinematic clip is the scene in All the President's Men in which Robert Redford's Bob Woodward meets Hal Holbrook in a parking garage. Dark and clouded with cigarette smoke, the 1976 movie encounter evokes the chiaroscuro ambiance of mystery. Yet after Tuesday's initial giddiness at the Felt revelation, the strongest feeling seems to be disappointment. Our long national guessing game is over, and we have been left with a dreary hangover: The protagonist in our great whodunit was an apolitical career civil servant who used leaks to assert institutional prerogatives. The more we learn about the affair, the more prosaic it becomes: Woodward met Deep Throat in a waiting room and initially sought him out for career counseling?
Another film, however, solved the real Deep Throat conundrum—by capturing Felt's essential banality. Unlike the movie that made Woodward and Bernstein into matinee idols, the 1999 comedy Dick stripped Watergate of its cloak-and-dagger and left it in pigtails.
In Dick, which featured starlets Kirsten Dunst and Michelle Williams, the elements of scandal unfold as teeny-bopper burlesque. Arlene and Betsy, two 15-year-old Washington girls, stumble onto G. Gordon Liddy mid-burglary when sneaking out of a Watergate apartment after bedtime to get a contest submissionto the magazine Tiger Beat postmarked by midnight. The girls then recognize Liddy on a White House class trip and find a "CREEP list" ("I guess that all the people on that list must be creeps") stuck to the bottom of his shoe. They end up in the Oval Office because Nixon pawns off dog-walking duties on them and win his lightheaded trust after delivering cookies inadvertently laced with marijuana. The girls chase the dog into a room full of White House staffers shredding documents surrounded by stacks of cash and uncover the Oval Office taping system; Betsy tries to record an Olivia Newton-John song onto it. After accidentally fast-forwarding to the incriminating bits, the girls end their friendship with Nixon. "You kick Checkers!" Arlene tells the president. "And you're prejudiced and you have a potty mouth!" The story gets out when the girls prank-call the Washington Post newsroom—and refer to themselves, between giggles, with the name of the porn flick Arlene's older brother has just been grounded for seeing.
Superficially, Dick was a spoof on All the President's Men. In place of the earlier film's battle between two grand Washington institutions, Dick renders the White House and the Washington Post as sitcom offices. Heroic Woodward is played not by dashing Redford, but by Will Ferrell, with the halting inanity he brings to every role.
But Dick was really a riposte to Oliver Stone's 1991 epic JFK, which trolled every nook and cranny of Kennedy-assassination conspiracy. In exploring each little question raised by the events in Dallas (including many that are settled, in the eyes of every serious scholar), Stone seeks out the most abstrusely nefarious explanation possible. For all JFK's dizzying, MTV-style edits, Stone's film finds its ideology squarely in the cinematic school of 1970s-era paranoia. As in The Parallax View, The Conversation, and Three Days of the Condor, the hidden story is always worse than the public one.
JFK appeared just at the Cold War's end, before the romance of espionage had withered away, when the Alger Hiss question was still good parlor-game fodder. In the decade that followed, however, palace intrigue was defined down. Dick hit theaters in the same year that Bill Clinton beat Nixon to impeachment in a scandal that was merely parlor farce. The Starr Report left chuckles and disgust in its wake, not mysteries.
Our disenchantment with Deep Throat follows a common American narrative: What begins as conspiracy is eventually reduced to camp. Dick sends up what Richard Hofstadter in 1964 identified as "the paranoid style in American politics." The movie doesn't make light of Watergate—the gravity of Nixon's crimes isn't questioned, and his young friends are shocked by his meanness, even if he doesn't come across as diabolical—as much as it spoofs the narrative impulses that drew us to Watergate as a tale. Both Dick and the recent Deep Throat unveiling leave us to reckon with the dissonance of Watergate's importance and its minor-league cast of characters. With JFK, Oliver Stone tried to invent a story that, in its sprawling scope, could be as big as the death of a president—a counterpoint to a Warren Commission version written in a language of narrowing: lone gunman, single-bullet theory. In Dick, both heroes and villains come only in size small: They are all central-casting buffoons. The movie taught us six years before Mark Felt did that Deep Throat could never be as great a character as we had hoped. "A lot of people want to know who our source is on this. But we've decided never to reveal your identity," Ferrell's Woodward says in his last garage encounter with the girls. "It's just too embarrassing."
Sasha Issenberg is the author of The Victory Lab about the new science of political campaigns.
Stills from Dick © 1999 Columbia Pictures, Inc. All rights reserved.