Monday, 9 May 2011

Washington: Behind Closed Doors - the best ever political thriller on TV

On Friday, having started to read Bob Woodward’s 2005 book  The Secret Man:The Story of Watergate’s Deep Throat (surprisingly dull), I began to write a post about Watergate, and that got me thinking about the 1977 American mini-series, Washington: Behind Closed Doors.

Switching on the TV for a post-prandial news catch-up at lunchtime, I discovered that the True Movies channel on Sky was showing the whole damn series that afternoon, repeated at various times throughout this week.

Synchronicity or what? 

For those who weren’t old enough at the time, Watergate was the most mesmerising (as opposed to significant or exciting) news story of the last 40 years – perhaps ever – thanks to the televised Senate Watergate Hearings. Given the amount of protection our own politicians and civil servants enjoyed when it came to scrutiny by the media or parliament, the sight of a seemingly endless series of top US government officials and aides being made to account for their actions on television every night was positively surreal – and the fact that the hearings in effect forced a President who had recently won a second landslide election victory out of office beggared belief. 

If any of democracy’s myriad enemies wanted to see a genuine example (i.e. a nation operating under the rule of laws, not men) in action – well, here it was. The world’s most powerful country had managed to oust a leader who had sought to undermine the principles on which it was founded. Nixon was as bemused as everyone else by the purpose of the Watergate break-in itself, but he eagerly participated in the cover-up, at one stage telling White House Counsel, John Dean, that he could source a million bucks to buy off conspirators seeking to blackmail the administration – all captured, as was revealed during the hearings, on audio tape: a development that would have been deemed too far-fetched in a Robert Ludlum thriller.

Not only did we get to enjoy the original drama, but we were later able to relive it by reading All the President’s Men by the Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in 1974, followed by the absolutely brilliant movie version of the book in 1976 – the greatest political movie thriller of all time, permanently lodged in my Top 10. That year also saw the publication of The Final Days, the reporters’ account of Nixon’s last months in power – a sort of American Götterdämmerung.

As if all that wasn’t enough, in 1977 came Washington: Behind Closed Doors, a stupendous political thriller series made for TV. A barely-veiled portrait of the Nixon Presidency and the criminal activities which brought it down,  the series was based on The Company, a novel by John Ehrlichman, Nixon’s Chief Domestic Advisor (and, along with Bob Haldeman, one of the brace of fearsome “German Shepherds” who acted as Nixon’s attack dogs) after he’d served 18 months in prison.

The series represented the ultimate revenge by liberal luvvies on a politician who’d served as a perfect lefty hate figure for two decades. Jason Robards as President Richard Monckton is magnificently malevolent – insanely paranoid, vicious, resentful, petty and derangedly vengeful. His character is captured by the line he snarls to his aides just after giving a heart-warmingly upbeat Presidential victory speech - “Let’s start figuring out which of [the Former President’s] ivy league faggots we can throw out on their ass now.” (The line comes at the end of this clip.)

Cliff Robertson, (whose career, ironically, was about to implode when he inadvertently blew the whistle on an embezzling Hollywood movie studio head) gives an excellent, understated performance as Head of the CIA (everyone else is chewing carpets) but the only genuine rival to Robards on the acting front is Robert Vaughan, as Monckton’s malignant chief aide, Frank Flaherty – it’s a sort of reprise of his role in Bullitt, but with the bastard-ometer turned all the way up to eleven. (If you want an example of how to sack an employee compassionately, watch this clip, which also highlights a wonderful  performance by Nicholas Pryor as weaselly gofer, Hank Ferris.)

So why, I hear you ask, did a confirmed right-winger get such pleasure from this brutal character assassination of a Republican President? 

Well, when Watergate broke, I tried my best to feel sorry for Nixon – but he didn’t make it easy. For a start, he was just such a creep (fittingly, the acronym used for the Campaign to Re-elect the President, which was at the heart of all the wrong-doing). Physically unprepossessing and socially awkward on a cosmic scale, there was just nothing remotely likeable about him. What a shame, when America was under genuine threat from a particularly rabid, dangerous set of internal enemies, that Nixon was the best the Right could come up with.

And, of course, Nixon turned out not to be a right-winger in any case. While Ted Heath was busy selling Conservatism down the river in the UK by implementing disastrous, interfering, left-of-centre policies, Nixon was doing exactly the same thing to Republicanism over the Pond. (Odd that both these inadequate human beings should be so eager to suck up fascist China, and so accommodating towards brutal dictatorships in general: there seems to have been something in their deeply flawed natures that made them want to control a world that simply didn’t take to them.)

Even if one had been a confirmed fan of Nixon’s, the sheer gusto ofWashington: Behind Closed Doors would have been impossible to resist. Besides, by then we knew it wasn’t far short of the truth – after all, we’d read the transcripts of Nixon’s gangsterish White House conversations, and one of Nixon’s arch-bastards-in-chief had written the book the TV series was based on.

Deep Throat, as we now know, was Mark Felt, Deputy Director of the FBI. It’s ironic that the public servant who did so much to help expose criminal activities in the White House should himself have been placed on trial for approving operations involving breaking into the homes of relatives and associates of fugitive terrorists, on the hunt for information that might pinpoint their whereabouts. Nixon appeared at Felt’s trial and lectured the court in a self-justifying way. Felt was found guilty. It took that great right-wing president, Ronald Reagan, to get Felt off the hook by issuing an official pardon.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the alert. I have been trying to catch this series again for years [also Otto Preminger's "Advise and Consent"]. It's excellent.

    My memory tells me that Stephanie Powers was once romantically linked to Henry Kissinger [?].Nobody can quite catch Kissinger on film. The actor who portrayed him in "Naked Gun" was the best and Paul Sorvino in Oliver Stone's film wasn't bad. It's odd that the crucial position of National Security Advisor in the most powerful nation in the world should have been held by two foreign-born, heavily accented [sometimes rendering them incomprehensible] academics from Mitteleuropa [the other being Zbigniew Brzezinski] for 12 years. I thought Hopkins and Frank Langella made a pretty good fist of their Nixon portrayals, but Jason Robards is superb

    Also, thanks for directing me towards Sky's True Movie channels [hitherto completely ignored]. An interesting and useful post.
    Tuesday, May 10, 2011 - 07:37 PM