Director: Mary Robertson | 165 minutes | documentary | Featuring: Richard Nixon
This four-part documentary focuses on Richard Milhous Nixon: the 37th President of the United States who resigned ingloriously in 1974 due to the Watergate scandal. But what about that actually? How did it get to the point where a President had to step down to avoid impeachment? To this day, Nixon casts a dark shadow over American politics. Nixon has been rightly maligned for his crimes – obstructing justice, illegal wiretapping of political opponents and a variety of money laundering and hush operations, including those to cover up the Watergate break-in afterwards. Political scandals in the US continue to be labeled “gate” and any alleged abuse of presidential power has been likened to Nixon. He’s pretty much the litmus test for undesirable behavior in a politician. A comparison with Nixon or calling someone NIxonian is never intended to be positive.
Without explicitly mentioning it, a parallel is found for the good public with the political situation in 2019. The documentary paints the picture of a paranoid president who declares to hate the press, but also likes to be in the spotlight, who has a polarizing effect and without using the term “fake news”, rejects the idea that large sections of the population disapprove of his policies. On the contrary, Nixon talks about the “silent majority” that shares his views and supports his policies. The comparison with the present becomes most clear when two journalists (with the knowledge of today – rhetorically) wonder whether a scandal like Watergate could happen again. (spoiler alert: according to the makers’ opinion the answer is “yes”).
For viewers who want a global and chronological presentation of Nixon’s political career and who don’t know all the details and plot twists, this is a good documentary. The makers have chosen to portray Nixon’s rise, triumphs and fall by purely archival images. No historians, journalists or former employees who explain the events afterwards, but a continuous story without side paths and retrospective. The person who speaks the most is Richard Nixon himself. TV recordings, interviews, press conferences and a few reflective comments he made as ex-President – and yes, also quotes from the secret tape recordings he had made in the White House that ended up killing him. It is not difficult to imagine how shocking the explosive statements were at the time and why they fatally undermined his authority. Not only did the tape recordings confirm that he was involved in illegal activities and a cover-up operation, but he also expresses himself as racist and homophobic. Nixon liked to present himself as a politician with moral authority who stood for “law and order”. Then such unmasking is extra painful.
Back to the life of Nixon himself. The first part, The Will to Win, provides a brief overview of Nixon’s youth and rapid political rise within the Republican Party: the death of two of his brothers, his service in the Navy during World War II and a very brief account of his campaigns against Democrats Jerry Voorhis (for a congressional seat) and Helen Gagahan Douglas (for a Senate seat). The documentary doesn’t mention it, but it was Douglas who nicknamed Nixon “Tricky Dick” for his relentless campaigning style, not shunning exaggerations, lies and dirty games. What remains is that Nixon is a dangerous politician, but a talented one: his political career starts in 1947 and in 1952 he becomes Vice President under Dwight D. Eisenhower. After eight years, he wants to succeed Eisenhower as President in 1960, but the charismatic Democratic candidate John F. Kennedy puts a stop to that.
In part two ‘Nixon’s The One’ (Nixon is the man) he loses the election to become governor of California in 1962 and his star seems to be extinguished with two defeats in a row. Not least because of Nixon’s disastrous press conference in which he blames the press and declares that from then on the journalists “have no more Nixon to kick in.” He’s leaving politics. The title “loser” hangs heavily around Nixon’s neck, but with the escalation of the Vietnam War from 1965, President Johnson’s popularity declines. Nixon sees his chance and presents himself as the “law and order” candidate and promises peace in Vietnam. The pivotal year 1968 is covered in detail (and even gets Nixon a little out of the picture): the Tet offensive of North Vietnam, President Johnson withdrawing from the election campaign, Martin Luther King being murdered, major riots in American cities and then the assassination of presidential candidate Robert Kennedy in June. One of the most controversial moments comes when Nixon appears to want to sabotage the peace talks with the Vietnamese. While historians are still at odds with how much influence Nixon’s backroom politics was, we hear President Johnson’s voice on tape sighing that this was treason. Ultimately, it is Nixon who narrowly wins in November by beating Vice President Humphrey by a small margin – and becomes President. One of the most controversial moments comes when Nixon appears to want to sabotage the peace talks with the Vietnamese. While historians are still at odds with how much influence Nixon’s backroom politics was, we hear President Johnson’s voice on tape sighing that this was treason. Ultimately, it is Nixon who narrowly wins in November by beating Vice President Humphrey by a small margin – and becomes President. One of the most controversial moments comes when Nixon appears to want to sabotage the peace talks with the Vietnamese. While historians are still at odds with how much influence Nixon’s backroom politics was, we hear President Johnson’s voice on tape sighing that this was treason. Ultimately, it is Nixon who narrowly wins in November by beating Vice President Humphrey by a small margin – and becomes President.
In part 3 ‘Storm Clouds’ it soon becomes apparent that despite Nixon’s promises, peace in Vietnam is still a long way off and protests against the war intensify when Nixon decides to extend the war in Southeast Asia to Cambodia and Laos. As the country becomes increasingly torn by supporters and opponents of the war and along racial cleavages, Nixon is persistent, convinced of the support of the “silent majority”. In 1972, Nixon won his reelection by a massive majority. Obsessed with his political opponents, especially the last Kennedy brother Edward, and alleged leaks from his administration, he has Democrats, journalists and employees wiretapping. A break-in at the Democrats’ headquarters in the Watergate building in Washington DC appears to be fizzling out,
The demasqué follows in part 4: ‘And then you destroy yourself’ (political suicide) when the makers clearly and conveniently list all the revelations, maneuvers and surprises from the Watergate scandal. This is the best part of the documentary as it conveys the sense of urgency and what was at stake well here. The whole Shakespearean drama ends in the shocking ending of a controversial President.
This documentary, originally made by CNN, makes a fairly one-sided selection from all possible angles to choose from and all the available image and audio material that sometimes tends to be biased. Nixon deserves little pity on its own, but the documentary largely omits why Nixon was now so successful and has played a dominating role since his appearance on the political scene in 1947. And that really wasn’t just because he was a communist eater and dirty campaigner. It is for good reason that Nixon was nominated five times by the Republicans (twice for vice president, three times for president – and Nixon won four times) and managed to persuade tens of millions of Americans to vote and support him. The successes (breakthrough in China,
“Tricky Dick” paints a fairly straightforward picture of a complicated President. The negative aspects of his career are highlighted without treating them too exhaustively and leave reflections and interpretations to the viewer. For a global overview, this is a great introduction, but Nixon is interesting enough for a more in-depth portrait in which his contradictions, strengths and weaknesses are more balanced.