Telluride 45: “Watergate-Or, How We Learned to Stop an Out-of-Control President”

The Telluride Film Festival often opens with the screening of  a long work. The documentary “Watergate-Or, How We Learned to Stop an Out-of-Control President”, was absorbing throughout its over 4-hour length, and from the title, still relevant. The film was made for the History Channel.

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Director Charles Ferguson (“No End In Sight”, “Inside Job”) said that when he started making the film five years ago, he thought it would be relaxing to make a documentary where the good guys win. The intervening presidential election made things more serious.

Ferguson described “Watergate” as a “very wild ride even if you know” the ending. There were 3500 hours of tape recordings taking place from 1971-1973. The documentary rigorously follows some fascinating facts. The White House tapes talk of a “Jewish conspiracy“ and blackmail photos are discussed. Relatively new reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein cover the Watergate events, because at first, it was believed the investigation was insignificant.

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Director Charles Ferguson at Telluride

The documentary reveals some amazing previously unknown details like Republican Senator Howard Baker being a mole for the White House before the depth on Nixon’s involvement was revealed. (“The Devin Nunes of today” joked an audience member at intermission.)

Afterward former Watergate prosecutors Jill Wine-Banks and Richard Ben-Veniste, former Congresswoman Elizabeth A. Holtzman and journalist Leslie Stahl gave their insights on the era.

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Elizabeth Holtzman and Leslie Stahl at Telluride

Elizabeth Holtzman was one of the House Judiciary Committee members who recommended three articles of impeachment against Richard Nixon. Holtzman said that during the Watergate era the “system worked”. She spoke of the ”courage of the press” and that “Hopeful” was “where we were” after Watergate. She added that today “we find ourselves” with “no check on tyranny”.

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Leslie Stahl at Telluride

Leslie Stahl who covered Watergate correctly described the documentary as “riveting”. She added that the results were “strangely positive” as “we healed”. She believes ”Journalism reached its peak at Watergate, becoming braver and braver” as the Nixon administration “tried to undermine” democracy.

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Richard Ben-Veniste at Telluride

Richard Ben-Veniste said the system “worked, almost didn’t work” before the “smoking gun” of the taped conversation was revealed and with “substandard Republican support” when “factionalism and party loyalty” were chosen “over loyalty to country.” He added that “an aroused public” compelled the Republicans to choose “country over party”.

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Jill Wine-Banks at Telluride

Jill Wine-Banks said Watergate shows a “process that can work”. She said that today, media has “different facts” and that in the Watergate era, we “agreed on facts” with “different interpretations”. She has a “fear (of) what is happening” with the attacks on the press. She added that what Donald Trump is doing is a “threat” and we must “take this on and get rid of the threat to democracy”.

Director Charles Ferguson said that completing “Watergate-Or, How We Learned to Stop an Out-of-Control President.” was the “hardest” filmmaking “I’ve ever done”. He added that the documentary shows that the “relative power of a small number of people” who “could do what was right” was “not entirely lost.”

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