Through his first three films, CHARLES FERGUSON has become one of the world’s essential investigative journalists and documentary storytellers. The Oscar-nominated No End in Sight offered a ruthlessly logical exposé of the failures of the Iraq War; the Oscar-winning Inside Job uncovered the mechanics of the 2008 global financial crash; and Time to Choose contrasted two climate-related futures for the earth. He discussed his new film, an American political epic, with MARK DANNER.
MARK DANNER: Charles, I was exhilarated by your film but also stunned by how compelling the story was, given that we know the ultimate outcome, and how vital it feels right now. Readers will perhaps understand by the subtitle why that is “How We Learned to Stop an Out-of-Control President.” But there’s an epic quality to the film, as a grand story of justice triumphing. Why did you feel compelled to tell the story now?
CHARLES FERGUSON: I first had the idea to make this film five years ago. I wrote an early treatment and proposal.
I had made three very heavy-duty documentaries about very serious, difficult, painful subjects. I wanted relief, to do some-
thing that was going to be fun. Watergate was a real-life political thriller where the good guys win, with absolutely no contemporary political relevance or resonance.
And then … life played a few tricks on me. By the time I started making the film, it was obvious that I had to make a much more sober, careful, rigorous film. Tat was an enormously interesting exercise in its own right, because Watergate has implications for our current condition.
I confess I was a true Watergate dweeb. Watching the hearings was my first intense political experience. I was about 15 and glued to the television set all summer. My mother said, “Go outside and do something! Stop watching TV!” I couldn’t stop watching. Did you take a similar interest?
I absolutely did. I found the hearings absolutely mesmerizing, as did everybody around me. I too was a teenager, and everybody around me was completely transfixed. The very few people who wanted to watch something else on television were out of luck.
Why do you think the hearings made for such compelling viewing?
Congressional hearings now are totally fake and staged and done for public relations consumption. There’s very little about them that is real and serious. Whereas it became very clear to me that, in the Senate Watergate Committee and the Senate Watergate Hearings, those people took their job really seriously. When they were questioning witnesses, they really cared about getting answers. They really cared what people said.
These people, most notably John Dean, were testifying—many of them for the first time—with grants of immunity about this massive cover-up. There was a great deal to learn and to uncover. What we’ve come to call Watergate included many forms of misbehavior beyond the burglary itself. We were watching, live, this excavation of the political underbelly of the Nixon administration, the intelligence community, the law-enforcement community, corporate America, and the beginnings of money and politics. It was largely unstaged. It really was amazing. Not that Congress was perfect by any means, but the members of the Senate Watergate Committee and many members of Congress were very intelligent, serious, committed people. The quality of people in Congress was far above what we expect of members of Congress today.
The film conveys the real-time shock of the hearings, notably from Dean’s first appearance when he talks about the cancer on the presidency and of course when the little-known Alexander Butterfield reveals the taping system. And these shocks were brought to Americans on national television in real time, a whodunit that was shocking the investigators at the same time as it was shocking the audience.
There were many, many surprises, some of them produced by the senators themselves, several of whom undertook their own independent personal investigations, most notably Lowell Weicker. It was a remarkable thing.
Watergate strikes me as an American Oresteia. Aeschylus’s trilogy of plays shows the birth of justice in Athens, the birth of the courts and the idea of “independent” justice taking over from traditional vendetta. One of the things your film does so well is show Watergate as a kind of pageantry of justice – a grand full-dress drama proving that “no man is above the law.” We seem to have come a long way from that. The stock phrase of the Obama era, for example, was, “It’s not who we are,” even as wrongdoers were left unpunished. When talking about torture, for example, President Obama said only, “It’s not who we are.” And yet it’s what we did.
Because I’d followed Watergate to some extent, I’d known that there were heroic figures—Woodward and Bernstein, Judge Sirica, Lowell Weicker—but I had not realized how it was an extraordinary demonstration of everything that we think is valuable about the American system: democracy, the rule of law, journalism, the courts, the will of the people, the importance of individual character, and what I think of as the American character: upright, courageous, believing in freedom, sticking up for what is right.
A very high percentage of the people who contributed were extraordinarily young. Woodward and Bernstein were in their 20s, Elizabeth Holtzman was 32, the three assistant prosecutors were under the age of 30. They did not come from wealthy families. They did not make a lot of money. They had no personal financial security. They were putting absolutely everything on the line. It was both a remarkable demonstration of personal courage and a remarkable demonstration of important things about the American constitutional, legal, political system, some of which are now under threat.
One of the notions vital for journalism is that it’s the journalist’s job to uncover wrongdoing. And once wrongdoing is uncovered, the system will deal with it. That assumption, which underlies my own life as a writer, was surely gloriously reframed by the story of Watergate. Journalists helped uncover wrongdoing and the system – the Congress, the courts – dealt with it: punished the wrongdoers, restored political health. But, in retrospect, I’d argue that Watergate seems more like a one-of, an anomaly, rather than a universal statement about who we are.
I wouldn’t say that Watergate was a one-of, but we now live clearly in a very different period. I think we’ve been sliding continuously from the way the world was then. It unfortunately is difficult to see how the same results would come to pass. Tat’s a very sobering conclusion.
The credibility of the media is one factor. The role of money in politics and the quality of the members of Congress is a second factor. There has been an erosion in the rule of law and in the ability and willingness of the legal and judicial system to bring violators of law to account, especially when they are financially or politically powerful. In the wake of the financial crisis, the Obama administration prosecuted zero senior financial executives.
Most people who studied the question agreed that at least several hundred people should have been put in prison. Now one fears that something similar might happen again. But maybe not. Mr. Mueller certainly seems to have a spinal cord.
Mark Danner, a Resident Curator at Telluride, has written on politics and foreign affairs, focusing on war and conflict, for three decades, including as a staff writer for The New Yorker and is a frequent contributor to the New York Review of Books. He is Class of 1961 Collegium Chair at the University of California, Berkeley and James Clarke Chace Professor of Foreign Affairs and the Humanities at Bard College. His latest book is Spiral: Trapped in the Forever War.