Acorn Media // 1977 // 750 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge P.S. Colbert // June 24th, 2012
"Hey, Hey, ESA, how many kids did you kill today?!"
Strange days have found us. Here come the late '60s / early '70 all over again, from the uniquely myopic perspective of 1977, via the epic teleplay Washington: Behind Closed Doors.
Early 1968, in an alternate universe version of America, President Esker Scott Anderson (Andy Griffith, Matlock) -- colloquially known as ESA -- appears on television to deliver a "message of historic importance to the nation." Instead of running for a second term, Anderson, taking doctor's advice, will retire upon the inauguration of his successor the next January. The announcement is such a bombshell it leaves Anderson's handpicked CIA Director William Martin (Cliff Robertson, Charly) in headshaking wonderment, asking "How could we not know that?"
Further shock waves turn the race for the Presidency into a mad scramble, resulting in the election of former senator Richard "Dick" Monckton (Jason Robards, All The President's Men), of the opposition party. Monckton, a veteran loser in past elections, rides to an upset victory on the shoulders of what he calls "the silent majority," hungry to believe his campaign promises of bringing an honorable end to the war raging in South East Asia, and peaceful prosperity at home.
And we're off on a spree, wending our way through smoke-filled rooms, romantic subplots, Georgetown dinner parties, and D.C. watering holes, anti-war demonstrations, bedrooms, board rooms, Camp David, the Oval Office, and so much more. What was once so quaintly referred to as a "mini-series" takes six discs and over nine hours to unravel from top to bottom.
Of course, anybody with a working knowledge of the Nixon administration's first term will be tempted to turn this tale into a parlor game, connecting the dots between the story's "fictional characters" and real historic figures. But the beauty of this hidden gem (originally a ratings disappointment for ABC in the fall of 1977), based on Watergate co-conspirator John Ehrlichman's novel The Company, is its ability to shed the Roman à clef trappings through sheer technical brilliance.
I can't speak to the quality of Ehrlichman's book, never having read it, but the screen adaptation by Emmy-winning powerhouses Eric Bercovici (Shogun) and David Rintels (Fear On Trial) is tight as a drum, its language not the least bit blunted by the constrictions of network television or the three and a half decades passed since its premiere. Journeyman director Gary Nelson (The Black Hole) accomplishes pure scenic jujitsu, engaging the myriad characterizations and plot developments in close combat without ever losing a thread. His work netted his only Emmy nomination, but if ever someone merited Oscar consideration for a TV movie...
The cast provides an embarrassment of riches. Griffith's combination of good ol' boy charm, sly cunning, and rugged handsomeness proves just the trick to separate ESA from LBJ, while Robards' singular abilities make drawing an easy distinction between the wounded, bitter, paranoid rantings that typify Monckton and "Tricky Dick" Nixon, despite their obvious similarities. Robert Vaughn (The Man From U.N.C.L.E.) won the mini-series' lone Emmy for his icy portrayal of Monckton's number one hatchet-man Frank Flaherty, and deservedly so. Though equally deserving are several of the series' lesser known supporting actors, including Frances Lee McCain (Gremlins) as a liberal TV producer married to one of Monckton's top aides; Phillip R. Allen (The Bob Newhart Show) as a "Black Ops" expert like G. Gordon Liddy (minus the ridiculous mustache and grand delusions); and Nicholas Pryor (Risky Business), whose portrayal of congenitally spineless Monckton lackey Hank Ferris damn near steals the show.
But now it's time to drop the other shoe: The standard definition 1.33:1 full-frame transfer is patchy and serviceable at best, betraying degrees of fading color and an understandable amount of grit. Nothing bad enough to prevent absorption into this addicting saga, but present nonetheless. The Dolby 2.0 Mono audio gives off some crackle and sibilance, but again these defects hardly qualify as game-changers. Acorn has helpfully provided English subtitles to cover the rough patches.
Additional education and perspective comes courtesy of the brief "Who Was Who" feature, included as an extra on the final disc, and identifies the real-life political heavy hitters of the era. There is more historical education in the form of an eight-page booklet.
What about the women? Stefanie Powers (Hart To Hart) and Lois Nettleton (Centennial) are the only female cast members accorded "above the line" billing, and they're both playing wives; a testament to the times before women were officially admitted into Washington D.C.'s top employment ranks. Both are extremely good, giving as good as they get from Robertson, Robards, and the rest of 'em. While this mention may seem condescending, believe me, it's not. Their roles (in addition many other important female characters here) are anything but superfluous to the events unfolding.
Washington: Behind Closed Doors pretty much came and went in its day, largely ignored by a public more than fed up with all things related to Watergate. Ironically, this epic tale deftly evades examination of that issue, and in doing so further establishes itself as an entity of its own, albeit in an parallel universe.
The exact details of this verdict will remain sealed for a minimum of one
hundred years, owing to matters of national security.
Review content copyright © 2012 P.S. Colbert; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Acorn Media
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 750 Minutes
Release Year: 1977
MPAA Rating: Not Rated