CAN TV viewers with an eye on the O.J. Simpson case or the Whitewater hearings be enticed by a blockbuster recap of a White House drama that took place 20 years ago?
If massive detail, a breathless tone, and new material can divert their attention, the answer is yes. Whether viewers come away satisfied may have a lot to do with their tolerance level for a ceaseless flow of minutiae delivered in a relentlessly dramatized tone.
The Discovery Channel is marking the 20th anniversary of the late President Richard Nixon's resignation with a five-hour documentary series. It reconstructs the whole sad saga about five men who broke into the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee and about the White House coverup that led to Nixon's fall.
Originally commissioned by the Discovery Channel and the British Broadcasting Corporation, the production - made by British filmmaker Brian Lapping Associates - was aired last spring in Britain as a weekly series on BBC2. It will premiere in the United States on the Discovery Channel on Sunday, Aug. 7, 9-11 p.m., with two back-to-back episodes. The remaining three parts air Monday through Wednesday, 10-11 p.m.
Most of the American version has remained intact, but it has undergone a sea change: It has a new narrator, Daniel Schorr, who was the chief Watergate correspondent for CBS during the time of the historic scandal. Most of the program's dramatis personae, in addition to the former president, are the familiar ones. There is Nixon's chief of staff H.R. Haldeman, who draws on notes of his talks with the president in long interviews for the show.
We hear from Nixon counsel John Dean, domestic adviser John Ehrlichman, intelligence chief G. Gordon Liddy, and a great many other major figures, some of whose names echo down recent history, others who have almost been forgotten. We see some of them as they are today and sometimes also during their Watergate years. Many have been interviewed anew for the program, although Nixon himself is seen in sections of a David Frost interview he did in 1977, some of it unaired until this production.
The program purports to show Nixon's involvement in the coverup earlier than previously thought, but its primary success lies in the way it deals with the facts as a whole, almost as if we'd never heard of Watergate. This approach was even truer in the British version, designed for viewers who hadn't absorbed the daily blow-by-blow on US television at the time. But even for Americans, the show takes nothing for granted, exhaustively re-establishing facts through archival evidence and other means.
In the face of passionately partisan points of view, the show's persistence in corroborating facts is well-nigh heroic. Let the narrative mention a check written by Howard Hunt, and you'll see that check in a close-up. If someone refers to an important memo, you'll often see that section of the text highlighted.
And when there is nothing real on hand to illustrate a point with, the show will often stage something: When a former cop is hired by Nixon's men, for instance, you see a sandaled foot treading on the entry floor of the Brookings Institution.
Such touches may not mislead in any factual way, but they do contribute to the program's primary faults: a melodramatic style and a doggedly incriminatory tone. The narrative is impressively well organized and well informed, but its litany of catchy, condemnatory phrases and its ominous music and flashy editing techniques all create a souped-up effect.
It's the wrong tack for a topic like this, which doesn't need dramatization, since it already is dramatic. This is especially true when the facts would speak loudly themselves, if only unaccompanied by the dum-de-DUM-dum of a production too eager to underscore its message of conspiracy and political catastrophe. The rest of the time, the stagey devices tend to detract from the credibility and, ironically, from the drama of the show. Much of this production is truly engrossing, but you may wish you weren't being tapped on the shoulder and reminded of it so incessantly.