It is the fate of the cult movie to be ahead of its time. One thinks of David Cronenberg’s Videodrome, which opened to middling reviews and pitiful box office receipts in 1983, only to see its dark media fantasia look far more prescient as video games and the Internet matured in the 1990s. Mike Judge had the distinction of directing two modern classics that tanked at the box office but flourished in video release; 1999’s Office Space resonated with the deepening economic malaise of the early twenty-first century, while 2006’s Idiocracy makes more sense today than ever before.
Sometimes, though, a film manages to be both ahead of and behind its time—as the 1999 alternate-history farce Dick makes clear. Numerous commentators over the years have noted that the Watergate spoof faced an impossible dilemma in its search for an audience; as a quasi-teen movie, it likely turned off the boomers and other older viewers who actually remembered the Nixon era, while younger audiences who might be interested in a goofy frolic with Kirsten Dunst and Michelle Williams were unlikely to get a good H.R. Haldeman joke. The box office tells the story, of course. The movie didn’t even place in the top 10 films in its first week, and it earned a paltry $6 million—less than half the film’s modest budget.
And yet, the fortieth anniversary of Nixon’s infamous resignation has brought the film new attention. “Our memory of Watergate needs this sense of the ridiculous,” the Washington Post’s Alyssa Rosenberg wrote in August. Crediting the movie as the best film on Nixon and Watergate, Rosenberg stuck to her proverbial guns in her assessment, arguing that Dick strips Nixon down to his “embarrassing elements. . . Or, as Betsy put it, ‘You kicked Checkers, you’re prejudiced and you have a potty mouth!’”
Of course, others saw the absurdity of Nixon and Watergate decades earlier. Humorist Veronica Geng famously wrote a review of the Nixon Tapes from the perspective of jaded music hipster. “[I]ndictably undanceable,” she wrote. Reviewing the recordings as Nixon, Dean, & Haldeman: The Benefit Concert (CREEP), the phantom music aficionado gave the former White House counsel a special nod: “Dean, in superb voice (shoo-in airplay hit: ‘Cancer’), comes into his own as a soloist forever peerless even by the standard later set in the legendary Capitol Hill sessions.”
Geng’s parody, thirty years old this past July, demonstrates part of the reason why both the film and Nixon remain so captivating. For Gen X, Nixon cast a shadow over our entire political lives, even if he was a largely absent figure. He rode the New Right to power, but as many observers have commented today, wouldn’t even get a sniff in today’s GOP. As Rick Perlstein pointed out in his 2008 work, Nixonland, Nixon existed for largely for Nixon, cared far more about foreign policy than domestic affairs, and as a result, was willing to do things the New Right wouldn’t, such as encouraging black enterprise even as he cracked down on black nationalists. He moved the GOP to the middle, albeit reluctantly, on issues like the environment just as Clinton recognized triangulation and centrism as the means to his survival two decades later.
In retrospect, the antics of the Nixon White House seem downright reality TV worthy, and Dick only amplifies the bizarre tawdriness of the era. The film’s portrayal of Woodward (Will Ferrell) and Bernstein (Bruce McCulloch) drives home the point. Bernstein spends as much time fluffing his hair and looking seductively serious as he does reporting. When the two appear on a modern-day news program to recount their story to a new generation of viewers, they get into an air scuffle. “You smell like cabbage!” Woodward yells at Bernstein. Sure, Gen Xers may have eaten up reality TV like candy, launching the Real World into the stratosphere, but boomers produced it and one has to think after enduring the Nixon debacle it all seemed manufactured to the now-aging cohort. Undoubtedly, the Clintons operated like a “wacky” reality TV couple, more so than Nixon and his wife Pat. Still, when Nixon tells Checkers to shut up or “I’ll feed you to the Chinese,” it would have been reality gold: “The president insults dogs and Asian-Americans, tune in at 9!”
Yet Dick was released before the age of reality TV truly took hold in the early 2000s. When it was released in 1999, I remember thinking the film looked like a weird combination of stupid gimmick and high concept: what if the mysterious Watergate informant Deep Throat were actually two teenage girls? I didn’t give it much of a second thought, and apparently most of the rest of America did the same. However, the film has since developed quite the cult following, and fifteen years later, it’s not hard to see why. Dunst and Williams are winningly paired as Betsy Jobs and Arlene Lorenzo, two clueless 15-year-olds who somehow stumble into the machinations of Watergate and contribute decisively to the downfall of the president—even if their historical role has been obscured for self-serving reasons by a buffoonish Woodward and Bernstein. The film also brings along a panoply of 1990s comedy figures (Dave Foley, French Stewart, Harry Shearer, and the ever-sleazy Ted McKinley, to name a few).
Dick has often been described as Clueless meets All the President’s Men, but it’s perhaps more apt to say that it marries the knowing satire of the Amy Heckerling classic to the “history as a series of random coincidences” philosophy of Forrest Gump: again, boomer nostalgia sold to and devoured by Generation X. Like the reactionary idiot Gump, Betsy and Arlene find themselves in just the wrong place at just the right time—helping John Dean along to his first pangs of conscience about the Nixon administration, and even influencing strategic arms talks by inadvertently getting Leonid Brezhnev high on pot cookies. (In fact, Dick might even be seen as inspired by Gump, which also features a scene in which the protagonist unknowingly plays a part in the saga of Watergate.) Both films play to the common cinematic fantasy that ordinary people can affect the course of history by wandering, Magoo-like, into the main event.
But that is as far as the similarities extend, as Dick is far more self-aware and genuinely funny than Gump. The film nods and winks at the youthful naiveté of its presumed boomer audience without succumbing to what Annie Edison once aptly described as that generation’s “well-documented historical vanity.” Since Arlene and her mother stay at the Watergate hotel, she and Betsy have a chance to see the events of the Watergate burglary unfold, setting off a chain of unlikely events that finds them in the White House with G. Gordon Liddy (Shearer) and John Dean (Jim Breuer). When I think “White House counsel,” I clearly think of the guy from Half Baked. Seriously, who cast this movie? Lee Daniels?
But then there’s the President himself, expertly played by Dan Hedaya. Gruff, stooped, and deluded, Hedaya captures the essence of Nixon better than almost anyone ever, easily trouncing the serious actorly portrayals of Anthony Hopkins and Frank Langella. If Oliver Stone had an over-serious Nixon drunkenly roaming White House hallways, director Andrew Fleming has him knocking back whiskey while screaming at Pat to stop “her goddamned snoring.”
Thanks to a clever script, Hedaya is able to tap into Nixon’s rich vein of paranoia and self-pity, as the President even accuses his long-suffering dog Checkers of not loving him enough. (“Kennedy and Johnson had dogs that liked them… What did I do to him? Nothing!”) Dick thinks he’s great with young people (!), and tries to charm Betsy and Arlene into ignoring what they’ve seen by promising them jobs as White House dog-walkers.
Tricky Dick succeeds at first, as the girls swoon over his power and authority. For their part, Betsy and Arlene use their newfound entrée with the President to try to convince him to end the war, and see the subsequent announcement of peace talks as their own doing—a little jab, one hopes, at boomers’ insistence that they “stopped a war” by wearing bell bottoms and smoking weed. (In one delightful scene, Arlene boldly tells Nixon and his cabinet that “war is unhealthy for children and other living things,” which results in much sputtering and outrage.) In fact, Arlene finds herself becoming hopelessly smitten with the dreamy president. Watching the apple-cheeked Williams fall in love with Nixon, all far-away eyes and gaping maw, is a comic wonder.
Indeed, one of the great joys of the film is the way that it lets us revisit the sordid history of the Nixon years through the silliness of Betsy and Arlene. And the film evokes nostalgia in its own right: after watching Dunst and Williams slog through the miserabilism of Melancholia and Blue Valentine, it’s actually a welcome sight to see the actresses play a pair of giggling, airheaded teenagers. It’s as if nothing in the intervening fifteen years happened. Not Heath Ledger’s tragic overdose, not ISIS or Katrina or Temptation Island. It was a time when there was no Phantom Menace. (Not exactly, as it turns out; the epic sci-fi turd dropped in May 1999, and Dick didn’t come out until August, but I still like to think the world was in shock at the time Dick was released, merely processing the time-fabric-warping awfulness of George Lucas’s latest when they were watching Williams and Dunst horse around with a hilariously miscast Dave Foley as H.R. Haldeman.)
Arlene’s crush falters, of course, as the true nature of Nixon’s venal administration becomes clearer and clearer, and the girls set out to expose “Dick” for who he really is. Nixon tries to be hip and cool and sympathetic in front of Betsy and Arlene, but he’s really just a lying, manipulative old coot, surrounded by hapless thugs. The film plays with the notorious tension between Kissinger and Nixon, as when the president dismisses Kissinger to talk to Betsy and Arlene, leaving his adviser forlorn. Later, Kissinger, in his characteristic way, provides a bit of self-aggrandizement: “I’ll take responsibility here. I’ll be the only person in this administration who’s willing to take responsibility for anything.” (This from the man who won’t even tell us who he advises today.) Dick even plays on Kissinger’s famous libido. When he escorts the two girls to the Oval Office, rescuing them from White House security, Kissinger tells the officer, “It’s alright, gentlemen. I’m familiar with these two young ladies. Well, not ‘familiar,’ familiar, obviously.”
The film’s final scenes capture Nixon’s own failings and, one might argue, that of the era. As Nixon boards the helicopter that will abscond him away from power and into a thirty-year vortex in which he goes from maligned, corrupt ex-president to aged wise man of foreign policy, Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain,” rolls over the scene. While the song had been written as a kiss-off to Shampoo-era Warren Beatty, in Dick it functions as a crystallization of the nation’s trajectory and self-regard. Nixon’s vanity, that of teenagers like Betsy and Arlene, and really America’s own fascination with itself all collide as the tune plays in a sort of sour denouement of U.S. power.
The 1970s brought us failed military intervention, untrustworthy government institutions, and economic and social malaise. It brought us Nixon, Ford, Carter, widespread cynicism, pet rocks, and navel-gazing. Two teenage girls dressed in a dismembered American flag flashing Nixon the middle finger seems like an accurate symbol for the period, especially looking back from 1999, when Americans were fretting about Y2K, the Clinton legacy, and the usual millennialism that occurs every 1,000 years.
Then again: failed military intervention, untrustworthy government institutions, and economic and social malaise? Does that sound familiar? Perhaps Dick resonates more today than it did fifteen years ago. It’s hard to know if a film like this would fare better at the box office if it were released now, in the waning days of another presidency that has seen itself bogged down in scandals and foreign wars. But maybe fifteen years from now there will be a comedy about a couple of goofy teens who, with the help of a batch of pot brownies and an iPhone, manage to ferry State Department cables to a mysterious Australian who looks like an old-school Bond villain. And maybe it too will fail, only to be rediscovered years later.