Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: With the election almost upon us and the Obama drama Southside With You coming soon to theaters, we tweak an old Watch This topic and hail some of our favorite films about real U.S. Presidents.
Oliver Stone’s excellent 1995 film Nixon brought depth and empathy to a controversial U.S. president, which in a way made it easier for Dick to circle back around to mockery. Its portrayal of Richard Nixon (Dan Hedaya) during the Watergate break-in and subsequent investigation might have come across as a cheap caricature, but the movie gleefully turns other key players in the scandal into goofs, too. Director and co-writer Andrew Fleming does a particularly savage number on intrepid reporting team Woodward and Bernstein, implicitly spoofing All The President’s Men by replacing Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman with a squabbling Will Ferrell and Bruce McCulloch, respectively.
None of these historical figures, though, are the film’s leads; Dick retells the Watergate saga through the eyes of teenage best friends Betsy (Kirsten Dunst) and Arlene (Michelle Williams). Arlene, the more hesitant and sensitive of the two, lives in the Watergate building, which is how the girls become unwitting players in the president’s downfall. This includes a stint as the White House dog-walkers and, in a situation that manages to be hilarious and weirdly touching, Arlene’s development of a major crush on Tricky Dick. (He replaces Bobby Sherman in her affections.) The given reason for an infamous gap on Nixon’s recordings is a particular delight.
Dunst and especially Williams have become known for their accomplished work in downbeat dramas, but they’re no less sincere playing ditzy, good-hearted besties insulated by their nervous giggles and loopy scheming. The movie works as well as it does because Fleming and co-writer Sheryl Longin have real affection for their lead characters, even when they’re failing to understand the full ramifications of their time at the White House. Dunst and Williams match that affection with their performances; when Arlene fantasizes about Richard Nixon riding up to her on a white horse on a beach, it’s patently ridiculous, but especially funny because Williams isn’t winking at that ridiculousness.
The ladies are backed up by a crew of Saturday Night Live and Kids In The Hall alumni. Ferrell and McCulloch are especially funny, but the centerpiece of the White House shenanigans is Hedaya’s Nixon, a glowering man with a few soft edges, locked in eternal struggle with his adorable dog Checkers. In a way, the movie uses Arlene and Betsy to get at Nixon’s downfall in the eyes of regular folks who might have been inclined to trust the president but couldn’t ignore the rising suspicion that he wasn’t on the up and up. Its breezy revisionism and made-up farce has the ring of truth.
Availability: Dick is available on DVD from Netflix or possibly your local library/video store. It can also be rented or purchased from the major digital outlets.