While almost everyone in the Washington press corps at first thought of the June 17, 1972 break-in at the Watergate hotel/office complex as a "third-rate burglary", reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward of the Washington Post took up the story, which would soon rank with the JFK assassination, Vietnam, and the 9/11 terrorist attacks as one of the most heartbreaking events in American history. Their discoveries of all the nasty goings-on in the administration of Richard Nixon during the 1972 presidential campaign led to the Watergate scandal, which was detailed in their memorable book "All The President's Men", and the classic 1976 film of the same name with Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford that came soon after. Their follow-up book "The Final Days" took up their precise reporting with an in-depth look at the things that caused Nixon to lose his grip on power. That book became the basis of a superb made-for-TV political drama that aired on ABC-TV on October 29, 1989.
THE FINAL DAYS is a hard-hitting look inside both the administration and the very mind of Richard Nixon himself, portrayed by Lane Smith with equal amounts of sympathy and paranoia. Given this tendency by those on the Right to paint him as a victim and those on the Left to paint him as a monster, Smith wisely takes the middle ground in his portrayal of the 37th president, never falling to a caricature, a pitfall that is so easy to fall into. Through Richard Pearce's direction and Hugh Whitemore's screen adaptation of the Bernstein/Woodward book, we are privy to many of the familiar elements we have all read about and seen: the catastrophic knowledge that Nixon had all of his White House conversations taped; his flight to keep those tapes private; and the unconscionable paranoia that had festered inside of him since the Communist witch hunt of the early 1950s that led to his own destruction. As was the case with ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN, the fact that we know the eventual outcome of the proceedings hardly makes THE FINAL DAYS a merely good but predictable docudrama. What makes it a superb docudrama is in finding out how we go to that bleak conclusion of Nixon being forced to resign from office in August 1974 under the threat of impeachment by Congress, and conviction and removal by the Senate. Surrounding Smith's accurate performance of Nixon are such distinguished actors as Theodore Bikel (as Henry Kissinger), Susan Brown (as Pat Nixon), Richard Kiley (as Nixon's lawyer J. Fred Buzhardt), Gary Sinise (as Watergate investigator Richard Ben-Veniste), David Ogden Stiers (as Alexander Haig) and James B. Sikking (as Attorney General Elliot Richardson).
Unsurprisingly, given that the Watergate scandal was still as much an open wound on the American psyche as Vietnam, THE FINAL DAYS, when it first aired, was greeted with considerable outrage from the usual places on the Far Right. The real Richard Nixon, even with less than four and a half years left to live, was as livid about THE FINAL DAYS as he and his most rabid supporters had been about ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN (which, after all, had been released a mere twenty months after his resignation). But the truth of the matter is that Nixon's actions as president in engaging in political sabotage, wiretapping, eavesdropping, conjuring up an Enemies List, and so forth, continue to have devastating consequences for the United States as a nation in general, and for our system of government in particular. His abuses of the powers of the office of the President, a product of long-standing anti-Commie paranoia and a win-at-all-costs, slash-and-burn mentality towards politics and his opponents, destroyed his own legacy; and all those qualities are ably embodied by Smith's performance here, as they would be by Sir Anthony Hopkins in Oliver Stone's later 1995 political bio-pic NIXON.
Though it can be said that seeing THE FINAL DAYS, like both NIXON and ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN, is like seeing political suicide being re-enacted for the entire world to relive, what we are really watching is the stark difference between how we idealize ourselves and what it sometimes is in actuality, which is not always a pretty picture. Such a stark picture, in the end, is the legacy of THE FINAL DAYS; for like ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN, it is not only about a political scandal, it is also about those dark corners inside the American Dream. It is also not only about the downfall of Richard Nixon, but arguably a portent of things to come in the age of Donald Trump as well, which itself, has proven to be incredibly catastrophic.
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