I admit it. I partially wrote this just for the title. Dick is not a horror film, though a single line of dialogue unites it with the larger theme of the series. When nerdy heroine Arlene whispers, “Dick frightens me,” she’s not just whistling Dixie. See, she’s talking about the leader of the free world, President Richard Milhouse “Tricky Dick” Nixon.
Dick is set during the waning days of the Nixon white house (though the timeline will be hazy to anyone without a working knowledge of the Watergate scandal or an open wikipedia browser tab), stretching from the night of the break-in itself in 1972 to Nixon’s humiliating resignation two years later. Almost just important as when it was set, though, is when it was made: in 1999, when the invented scandals of the Clinton administration sparked a renewed interest in the actual wrongdoing of the Nixon white house (though, ironically, far from the worst thing Dick ever did). The true identity of Deep Throat, the inside tipster who fed information to Washington Post reporters (it’s important to note here that reporters used to actually seek out news and could get in trouble for publishing falsehoods) Woodward and Bernstein had not yet been revealed. While All the President’s Men posited him with the trustworthy and accurate middle-aged face of Hal Holbrook, Dick suggests that Deep Throat’s true identity might be much more ridiculous. What if Deep Throat, the man who brought down a powerful and corrupt white house, was actually two airheaded teenaged girls.
Betsy (Kirsten Dunst) and Arlene (Michelle Williams, in her first “Hey, she’s not just the annoying chick from Dawson’s Creek” role) don’t have much in the way of brains. Bob Haldeman (Kids in the Hall ace Dave Foley), one of Nixon’s henchmen, remarks that he’s “seen yams with more going on upstairs than those two.” Despite their lack of brains they had already at this point, totally accidentally thwarted the Watergate break-in, recovered a list of bribes for the Committee to Re-Elect the President (which they assumed, accurately, to be a list of creeps), and were about to become his Official White House Dog Walkers. In this position, they become a more focused and destructive version of Zelig, contributing in some way to the iconic moments and eventual downfall of the Nixon Administration.
“Matters of great concern should be treated lightly,” is a quote from Hagakure, a work from 18th Century Japan. It manages to describe the phenomenon of “stupid-smart” comedies very well, among which Dick stands proud and tall. This starts with the meticulous research that goes in to the silly throwaway gags that abound. A lot of the humor comes from knowing the deep cast of Nixon’s white house: Kissinger’s arrogance and frustration with those around him, Dean’s fragility, Haldeman’s teeth, and playing it for goofy laughs. In other cases, it’s offering explanations for the enduring mysteries of the time: the missing 18 1/2 minutes of the recordings, how Nixon really brokered his talks with Brezhnev, and even why the man was so goddamned paranoid. It’s taking a painful piece of American history, when the president was revealed to be nothing more than, in his words, a crook, and making light of it. The film also does not shy away from a very simple fact: the man’s name is Dick, and that’s funny. Ignoring it doesn’t do anyone any good.
Selling the humor becomes a challenge, especially in a movie like this: with teenaged leads dealing with an historical event, which might account for the film’s disappointing box office and the stalling of career of the the film’s co-writer and director Andrew Fleming. He used every bit of clout to assemble a murderer’s row of the best comic actors 1999 had to offer. He starts with character actor Dan Hedaya, who does a killer impression of Nixon’s Droopy-Dog-by-way-of-Yosemite-Sam cadence. Kids in the Hall alums show up with the aforementioned Foley, and Bruce McCulloch as Carl Bernstein, bringing the right elements of awkwardness and hair obsession to the role. SNL vets Jim Breuer, Ana Gasteyer, and Will Ferrell play White House council John Dean, Nixon’s secretary Rose Mary Harris, and Bob Woodward respectively. Harry Shearer is appropriately creepy as Watergate felon G. Gordon Liddy. Lastly, Saul Rubinek perfectly incarnates Kissinger. As good as the cast is in Oliver Stone’s otherwise disappointing Nixon, the cast of Dick is the true Nixon Administration. In my heart, I mean.
As the girls get drawn into the workings of the Nixon white house, they remain blissfully ignorant of history unfolding all around them. Arlene is far too focused on her intense crush on Dick to notice much of anything, and Betsy makes Arlene look like a rocket surgeon. As they encounter more and more wrongdoing, ironically it’s Nixon who becomes more suspicious of them. The most horrible thing they suspect him of is that he might not like his dog. Oh, and anti-Semitism.
A late-night crank calling session (to the radical, muckraking bastards Woodward and Bernstein that Betsy’s mother despises) turns serious as the girls begin to realize, however hazily, that they might have something to bring down Dick. The third act of the film does wilt somewhat under the pressures of drama, but only in comparison to the inspired weirdness of the early going. We know what happened, because it’s history, but what Dick gives us are the whys. And the whys, as it turns out, are because you should not kick dogs. Even if you’re the president.
Dick is part of one of my favorite double features ever. Watch it after All the President’s Men, and get two brilliant takes on the same period in history.
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