Eight months into coronavirus-induced quarantine, I’m thinking a lot about Dick.
The 1999 comedy, co-written by Sheryl Longin and director Andrew Fleming, satirizes what is declared in the opening moments as one of “the great mysteries of the twentieth century” – the identity of Watergate informant Deep Throat – by imagining Deep Throat as two fictitious teenage girls, Arlene (Michelle Williams) and Betsy (Kirsten Dunst). Still outstanding actresses of their generation, Williams was co-starring on Dawson’s Creek at the time, while Dunst’s The Virgin Suicides, her first collaboration with director Sofia Coppola, premiered at Cannes two months before Dick’s release. On the surface, the premise of two ditzy teens taking down the Nixon administration appears to make them the butt of the joke, but Dick imagines Watergate’s villains and heroes to be equally prone to petty squabbling and vaingloriousness. CIA agent Mark Felt’s name remained a mystery until 2005, though Carl Bernstein’s ex-wife Nora Ephron guessed, and famously blabbed about it for years without being believed.
Dick has been on my mind because veteran journalist Bob Woodward, immortalized by Robert Redford in 1976’s All The President’s Men, waited until September – right before the release of his new book – to reveal that on February 7th, Trump stated that he knew the virus was “deadly” and airborne, while publicly downplaying the threat and discouraging the use of mask-wearing to reduce transmission. Over 225,000 Americans have died, millions have lost their jobs, and the pandemic continues to spread. Woodward’s decision to stay silent until his book launch cuts deep because it’s a betrayal of who we believe Bob Woodward to be: someone who holds the President to account so thoroughly that he has to leave office. But that is part hindsight and part Hollywood.
Artistic liberties often flatter and eclipse reality in the public imagination. Redford optioned All the President’s Men while the investigation was still ongoing. His Woodward and Dustin Hoffman’s Bernstein are heroic journalists who put pursuit of the truth over their egos. Dick’s journalists are not heroes, nor the protagonists. Will Ferrell (then of Saturday Night Live) and Bruce McCulloch (The Kids in the Hall, sporting a feathered wig) riff on Redford and Hoffman’s performances, down to the way they eye each other across their respective Washington Post desks. They bicker, wrestle over the phone, and revel in the glory that comes with their scoop. Dick opens with a modern-day TV interview of the duo, who decline to disclose Deep Throat’s identity. Coming to blows over the secret, Woodward tells Bernstein, “You smell like cabbage!”
Dick has a lot of fun connecting the dots in this alternate history. Arlene (who lives in the Watergate) and Betsy intercept G. Gordon Liddy (Harry Shearer) while entering a contest to win a date with teen idol Bobby Sherman, leaving the tape on the door that alerts security to the burglars’ presence. On a class trip to the White House, they spot Liddy with the C.R.E.E.P. list stuck to his shoe, but assume “all the people on that list must be creeps.” The hijinks escalate as Nixon’s men try to keep the teens from understanding what they’ve seen. Hoping to distract them, Nixon (Dan Hedaya) makes the girls White House dog walkers. That access allows them to spot underlings shredding documents (earning them promotions to the President’s “secret youth advisors”), discover the Nixon tapes (where Arlene spends exactly 18.5 minutes professing her love to “Dick”), and unknowingly serve world leaders pot-laced cookies (which Betsy’s brother suggests made Nixon paranoid). They revel in their new roles, taking credit for asking the president to end the Vietnam War. Like Nora Ephron, they immediately blab, yet are not believed by their family and friends. Though Woodward and Bernstein are grateful for the scoop, keeping the source of their information secret is not to protect Arlene and Betsy, but an act of vanity. As Woodward admits, “It’s too embarrassing.”
Both Dick and the Trump presidency are rife with buffoons, criminals, and revelations about the president’s wrongdoing. Speaking with a man legendarily credited with ending one presidency, though baffling to a reasonable person, fits with Trump’s narcissism and fame obsession. A 1976 profile, six months after the release of All The President’s Men, opens by comparing Trump’s looks favorably to Robert Redford’s. Fame also gave Woodward the option of saving his damning Trump quotations for the book deal. If Ferrell’s portrayal had saturated the public consciousness as much as Redford’s has, would Woodward’s months of silence be as disappointing? Maybe it’s naive to hold someone to the standards of their Hollywood-polished image. Or at least the prestige picture version.
Dick, in its farcical reimagining of one of America’s greatest political scandals, lays bare how so much of what we collectively experience lies in the hands of a few arrogant men and their self-motivated choices. The difference between comedy and tragedy is how those choices are interpreted and disseminated to the public, whether through journalism or art. The stakes are even higher now, the losses grimmer, and no one believes Trump would have the decency to resign. The absurdity of it all is enough to make you cry. Dick can laugh at it, because it’s farther removed from its subject than All The President’s Men. We’re still in it, and we don’t know yet how many of us will make it out alive.