History Channel’s ‘Watergate’ Plays Like a Breathless Thriller

Watergat, Nixon
History Channel

Like Ken Burns on steroids, Oscar-winning documentarian Charles Ferguson (Inside Job) takes a punchy, in-your-face approach to his retelling of the political scandal that glued a nation to their TV sets during the summer of 1973.

What emerged from those intense Senate hearings, and a protracted battle over sensationally damning White House tapes, would culminate in the resignation of President Richard Nixon (above) a year later.

In six hours over three nights, Ferguson’s Watergate (puckishly subtitled “Or: How We Learned to Stop an Out of Control President”) often plays like a breathless thriller. Even though we know the outcome, the scope of the labyrinthine cover-up of the hapless Watergate burglary, and the ruthless nature of the scheming within the Oval Office, remain staggering more than 40 years later.

In dramatizing the tapes, though, Ferguson veers into near-parody. As Nixon, Tony winner Douglas Hodge scowls, growls and blusters like a dyspeptic Ralph Kramden, nowhere near as menacing as the genuine article we see in news footage from televised addresses and combative press conferences. At times the reenactments have the feel of a Saturday Night Live spoof, except each word is real.

The documentary is on firmer ground in its coverage of the Senate hearings and the subsequent House impeachment proceedings, with reflections from politicians, lawyers and journalists (including Nixon nemesis Dan Rather) embroiled in the furor. They, and we, still haven’t gotten over it.

Watergate, Series Premiere, Friday, Nov. 2, 9/8c, History