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‘White House Plumbers’ and beyond: A viewers’ guide to the Watergate scandal


By Brian Lowry, CNN

With the premiere of HBO’s “White House Plumbers,” the Watergate scandal is having yet another moment, 51 years after the original break-in that ultimately led to Richard Nixon’s resignation.

Watching some of the newer and more recent productions devoted to that story, as well as revisiting older ones, offers a few insights about tho Watergate years, and a reminder that Nixon’s scandals went well beyond just sending a few hapless burglars into the Democratic National Committee headquarters.

For those who might see Watergate as ancient history, these projects — featuring those who participated in and covered the story — also underscore that this previous constitutional threat was much closer than it appears in the rear-view mirror.

As for refresher courses, here are a few options, including some that qualify as Watergate-adjacent in terms of helping to understand or remember what happened.

“White House Plumbers” (HBO Max)

Watergate meets “Veep” in this new limited series, an at-times-surreal account that occasionally feels a little too over the top, mostly because the real-life characters actually were. At its best, it’s a lightweight companion to “All the President’s Men,” presenting the flip side of all that planning and frantic covering up by what amounted to Keystone Criminals. (CNN and HBO Max are both part of the same parent company, Warner Bros. Discovery.)

“Watergate: High Crimes in the White House” (CBS)

Although Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein are among those interviewed, there’s a bit more of a skew in this documentary toward CBS’ role as one of the few TV news outlets to cover the scandal, including Lesley Stahl’s recollections about the story, footage of Walter Cronkite weighing in on the scandal and stately reporter Daniel Schorr discovering on air that he had earned a spot on Nixon’s enemies list as he read through the names.

Incorporating interviews old and new, the project also captures just what a huge “hit” the televised Watergate hearings were, back in the days when there were three networks and not a whole lot of viewing alternatives.

“Watergate: Blueprint for a Scandal”

A four-part docuseries that played on CNN, the project features interviews with John Dean, among others.

“Watergate” (History)

The History Channel’s exhaustive six-part docuseries, which originally premiered in 2018.

“Gaslit” (Starz)

This eight-part dramatization of Watergate is worth catching for those who haven’t seen it, with Julia Roberts as whistleblower Martha Mitchell, an unrecognizable Sean Penn as her husband, Nixon Attorney General John Mitchell, and Dan Stevens as John Dean. Exaggerated in part to the point of satire, it’s nevertheless a telling look at the scandal and its key players, including a wildly over-the-top Shea Whigham as G. Gordon Liddy.

“All the President’s Men” (HBO Max)

A rewatch of director Alan J. Pakula’s 1976 film version of Woodward and Bernstein’s book stands out for unintended reasons in certain places, such as a Washington Post editors meeting that consists entirely of older White guys in white shirts, debating whether to stand by the young reporters.

At its core, though, the film holds up and then some, from its exploration of classic shoe-leather reporting to the scared sources unable to stay silent about the corruption they witnessed. Add to that the sensational performances and William Goldman’s Oscar-winning screenplay, with signature lines like Deep Throat (Hal Holbrook) telling Woodward (Robert Redford) to “Follow the money” and “The truth is, these are not very bright guys, and things got out of hand.”

“The Post”

Steven Spielberg’s 2017 movie offers a deeper dive into another angle of the story, specifically the relationship between Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) and publisher Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep), and the courage the latter exhibited — having been thrust into that role — in withstanding pressure from the White House when publishing the Pentagon Papers in 1971. That tenacity would later be vital to the Post’s role in exposing Watergate.

“Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House”

This so-so 2017 film stars a better-than-the-movie Liam Neeson as Felt, the FBI official finally revealed to be Woodward’s source, Deep Throat, in 2005.


For an entirely different take, this zany 1999 caper stars Kirsten Dunst and Michelle Williams two unwitting high schoolers who wander off during a White House tour and find themselves embroiled in the scandal of the century. Dan Hedaya features as “Dick” Nixon, with Will Ferrell as Bob Woodward.


Michael Sheen and Frank Langella reprised their stage roles as David Frost and Nixon in conducting their famous 1977 TV interviews, an entertaining movie, defined by its standout performances, that’s as much about the pressure on the interviewer and their verbal parrying as his subject.

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