Published August 1, 1999
Like most Hollywood attempts at satire, Dick, directed by Andrew Fleming, falls into the fatal trap of becoming too cozy with the object of its satirical attentions. This is a pity because there are many good and funny things in it. It would have been a great movie if it could have kept its focus on the brainless teenage girls, Betsy (Kirsten Dunst) and Arlene (Michelle Williams) who become dog-walkers for Richard Nixon (Dan Hedaya) during the Watergate Scandal (which they unwittingly precipitate) and a good movie if it could have kept any focus at all. Instead, after sketching in the girls, it becomes too fond of them and instead turns its satirical attentions to the President’s men—so worn a target by now that the darts won’t stick anymore—and his pursuers in the press, Bob Woodward (Will Ferrell) and Carl Bernstein (Bruce McCulloch).
This part of the movie I liked. Before the opening credits we see the two reporters squabbling like spoiled children on one of the endlessly congratulatory talk shows they appeared on after their triumph, and throughout they are depicted as vain, incompetent, jealous and petty. At one point, disappointed of promised documentary evidence, Bernstein laments: “Now everyone will think I’m a schmuck!”—a line whose comedy depends on the fact that everybody already thinks him a schmuck. For those of us who have come to hate the self-congratulatory excesses of the media culture, it is gratifying to see the heroic journalists of All the President’s Men come to this, but at the same time I regret that it means a further diffusion of satirical energies which ought to be directed at the two girls as representatives of the idiocies of popular culture and its impact on public opinion.
The best moments of the film come with Arlene’s crush on Nixon and associated fantasy sequences in which the president rides a white horse (in his trademark suit and tie) and carries her off like the Sheikh of Araby. “Pat will understand,” he assures her. Meanwhile, the girls’ utter ignorance of politics and foreign policy, or even what is going on around them, leads Betsy proudly to announce, when the last American troops are withdrawn from Vietnam in January of 1973, that “Arlene and I are the ones who asked the president to stop the war.” Almost as funny is their moment of disillusionment when they overhear some of the conversation on the White House tapes and upbraid the President for being insincere to his dog: “You act like you like him and you don’t really,” says one. Besides, “you’re prejudiced, and you have a potty mouth.”
But the movie, loving the girls as it does, ends up taking them at their own, absurd evaluation. You know a movie is in trouble when it indulges in that hoary old 1970s fantasy of turning on the old folks by lacing their cookies with marijuana. Of course the girls don’t know they’re doing it; Betsy’s brother, Larry (Devon Gummersall), a pothead, keeps his stash in the walnut jar, telling them that it is “walnut leaves.” But it is merely silly and self-indulgent to show Nixon, Kissinger (Saul Rubinek), Haldemann (Dave Foley) and a formerly truculent Leonid Brezhnev (Len Doncheff) under the influence of the cookies giddily singing “Hello, Dolly”— whereupon Nixon solemnly says, “You know, girls, I think your cookies have just saved the world from nuclear catastrophe.” In the same way, the decision by John Dean (Jim Breuer) to turn against his boss is represented as the result of the girls’ saying that otherwise he’ll be “just like Dick.”
In other words, instead of being the “stupid teenage girls” that even the girls know they are, they become holy fools, as it were, able to cleanse the polity of the stain of corruption precisely because they are so clueless. There is an underlying sense of celebration to the comic moment at which they embrace their civic destiny and proclaim that, more than stupid teenage girls, “We’re human beings and American citizens. And four score and seven years ago our forefathers—did something. I forget what.” And, in the end, even the pretense of this innocuous innocence—of the knowledge of good as much as of evil—breaks down as the girls greet the President’s helicopter, taking him to exile in San Clemente, with a huge painted banner reading “You suck, Dick. Love, Deep Throat.” Come to think of it, I can’t remember whether or not they include the vocative comma. Quite the little charmers, aren’t they?