"...the main purpose of criticism...is not to make its readers agree, nice as that is, but to make them, by whatever orthodox or unorthodox method, think." - John Simon

"The great enemy of clear language is insincerity." - George Orwell

Thursday, June 30, 2022


On June 17, 1972, Washington, D.C. police arrested five burglars breaking into the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate Office Building. It was later revealed that then-President Richard Nixon approved plans to cover up the break-in. Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein were instrumental in bringing much of this scandal to light with their chief anonymous source famously nicknamed “Deep Throat” after the mainstream pornographic movie that was popular at the time.
This scandal has been documented and dramatized numerous times, most famously in Alan J. Pakula’s film, All the President’s Men (1976), arguably the definitive take on this incident. In 1999, along came director Andrew Fleming and his screenwriting partner Sheryl Longin with Dick, a comical movie that pokes fun at the Nixon administration and the Watergate scandal as it imagines “Deep Throat” being two naïve 15-year old girls. This was several years before the real identity of this informant was revealed so much of the movie’s humor comes from these unlikely teenagers helping take down Nixon.
Dick opens with a framing device of French Stewart as a Larry King-type talk show host interviewing an aging Woodward (Will Ferrell) and Bernstein (Bruce McCullough). Naturally, he asks them to reveal the identity of “Deep Throat,” which of course they refuse while bickering like an old married couple. The movie proceeds to riff on the famous opening credit sequence of All the President’s Men, poking fun at it with two teenage girls doing the typing and making a mistake that is corrected with White Out.

Arlene Lorenzo (Michelle Williams) and Betsy Jobs (Kirsten Dunst) are hanging out at the Watergate Hotel where the former lives with her mother (Teri Garr) writing a fan letter some pop rock star of the day late one night. While mailing said letter they accidentally stumble into the Watergate break-in. The next day, they encounter G. Gordon Liddy (a wonderfully twitchy Harry Shearer) during a tour of the White House with their class and spot a piece of “toilet paper” stuck to his shoe. It turns out to be the CREEP list featuring financial pay-offs to the Watergate burglars. Naturally, the two girls are clueless as to what the list means.
While H.R. Haldeman (Dave Foley) is interrogating Arlene and Betsy (“When you think of your President do you think friendly thoughts?”), President Richard Nixon’s dog Checkers notices them and seeks attention from the two girls. To keep them quiet, Nixon (Dan Hedaya) appoints them official White House dog walkers, thinking that they are just a couple of dumb girls, but it allows them access to the inner workings of the White House where they witness cover-up tactics such as the shredding of important documents.
The characters of Arlene and Betsy carry on in the proud comedic tradition of movies such as Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989), Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion (1997) and Dude, Where’s My Car? (2000), of two, not-so-smart or naïve best friends bumbling their way through a series of misadventures. Michelle Williams and Kirsten Dunst are well-cast as two teenagers that aren’t exactly dumb per se, but rather inexperienced. Arlene is the smarter of the two and it is she who decides to ask Nixon to put an end to the Vietnam War when Betsy’s perpetually stoned brother (Devon Gummersall) gets drafted. The next day, Nixon announces an end to the war! Dunst’s Betsy isn’t as smart but plays her part in helping shape history. Williams and Dunst are believable as best friends that spend most of their time together in their own little world. The movie tracks their maturation from naïve teenagers to politically astute young women that help bring down a presidency.

Veteran character actor Dan Hedaya is a hoot with his wonderful caricature of Nixon as a gruff bumbler who thinks that he’s manipulating these two girls when it is the other way around. Hedaya is surrounded by impressive supporting cast of comedians from Kids in the Hall and Saturday Night Live, including Jim Breuer as White House counsel John Dean, Dave Foley as Haldeman, Ana Gasteyer as Nixon’s secretary, and Harry Shearer as Liddy. Much as Steven Soderbergh would do later with The Informant! (2005), these comedians were not instructed to ham it up but instead play it straight, which makes their performances funnier.
About an hour in, scene stealers Will Ferrell and Bruce McCullough show up as the famous Washington Post investigative journalists, playing them as antagonistic partners with the Bernstein being the vain one, occasionally checking his hair, and the Woodward as the more serious one refusing to share any of his work. These comedy ringers’ exaggerated take is in humorous contrast to the solemn view in All the President’s Men.
Much of the humor in Dick derives from a treasure trove of Easter eggs for history buffs as the infamous 18-and-a-half-minute gap in one of Nixon’s audio recordings is explained because of Arlene and Betsy recording a message for the President with the former professing her love for him at length. We also see Arlene and Betsy inadvertently help alter history as they not only contribute to ending the war but also aid in brokering peace between Russia and the United States. “I think your cookies have just saved the world from nuclear catastrophe,” Nixon tells them about the latter. Dean betrays Nixon and testifies against him after Arlene and Betsy shame him for his involvement in the cover-up.

Director Andrew Fleming and his co-screenwriter Sheryl Longin first started writing the screenplay for Dick in 1993 where they started with two teenage girls getting into all kinds of misadventures but none them worked. Longin remembered an experience she had at the age of seven. She was with her family on vacation at the same hotel as President Nixon in Key Biscayne. She and two older friends threw ice cubes at Secret Service agents from a seventh-floor window and was convinced that she would get in trouble. Nixon subsequently canceled a planned speech by the hotel pool. She and Fleming took that incident and came up with the idea of the girls being “Deep Throat.”
Initially this was just a joke that they found amusing, “and we kept absorbing that, and it just never went away. We just kept finding it amusing. I told people about it. They said, ‘That’s hilarious. No one will ever make that movie.’,” Fleming said years later. After the success of The Craft (1996), he decided to use the buzz from that movie to make Dick, shopping it around Hollywood. People thought it was funny but didn’t want to make it. Fortunately, Mike Medavoy, head of Phoenix Pictures, who had worked with Fleming on Threesome (1994), agreed to make it with Columbia Pictures.
They initially sent the script to former Washington Post executive editor Ben Bradlee asking if he’d play himself but he declined. They also sent a copy to former John Dean who sent it back with a note that read, “Good luck.” For the two leads, Fleming was impressed with Kirsten Dunst in Interview with a Vampire (1994) and cast her alongside Michelle Williams, hot off the popular television show Dawson’s Creek.

Fleming and Longin were worried early on that the movie was too irreverent but after reading transcripts of Nixon’s infamous audio tapes they felt that “he was irreverent. He violated us, lied to us. Did things that were illegal and seriously, permanently damaged this country.” Longin said, “Our generation then felt very cynical about politics. We became cynical and apathetic, and we really feel it was because the earliest thing we knew about politics is that they were lying and abusing power.”
Dick was well-reviewed by critics at the time. Roger Ebert gave the movie three-and-a-half out of four stars and wrote, "Comedy like this depends on timing, invention and a cheerful cynicism about human nature. It's wiser and more wicked than the gross-out insult humor of many of the summer's other comedies." In his review for The New York Times, Stephen Holden wrote, "In exaggerating Nixon's mannerisms, Mr. Hedaya has created the year's funniest film caricature. With his hunched shoulders, darting paranoid gaze and crocodile grimace, Mr. Hedaya's Nixon is the quivering, skulking embodiment of a single word: guilty." The Washington Post's Rita Kempley wrote, "Dunst and Williams, with their giggly comic chemistry, loopy charm and resourcefulness, can be universally appreciated." In his review for the Los Angeles Times, Kevin Thomas said of the filmmakers, "the core audience they’re most likely hoping to connect with are Betsy and Arlene’s contemporaries, who today would be hitting 40. Actually, ‘Dick’ is so sharp and funny it should appeal to all ages." Entertainment Weekly's Lisa Schwarzbaum wrote, "Like Election and Rushmore, it’s a ‘teen’ comedy that isn’t a teen comedy at all, but cops groovy teen spirit in the service of something much more adult."
Dick uses The World of Henry Orient (1964) as its primary template with two young girls bonding over their mutual obsession with an older man that includes posters and scrap books dedicated to him. Once they get to see behind the curtain, as it were, they become disillusioned and mature both emotionally and politically, and participate in his downfall. The movie eventually mutates into a paranoid conspiracy thriller a la All the President’s Men as the girls not only witness the last days of the Nixon administration but help take it down while being followed and surveilled.

Dick is a fun movie but it is easy to see why it tanked at the box office, not even making back its modest $13 million budget. While it certainly can be enjoyed as a goofy comedy about the hijinks of two girls, as it was marketed, you really need to be well versed in the Watergate scandal and All the President’s Men to fully enjoy the humor and inside jokes. This is what killed it commercially as teenagers either didn’t know about it or didn’t care, which is a shame as Dick is an immensely enjoyable movie that deserves a second lease on life.
Gajewsk, Ryan. “Dick Director on Challenges of Making a Watergate Comedy and Whether It Could Be Done Today.” The Hollywood Reporter. June 17, 2022.
Waxman, Sharon. “Generation X’s Tricky Dick.” Washington Post. August 1, 1999.