George Clooney’s Going to Do a Movie About Watergate. Yeah?

Culture Watch
tags: Watergate, George Clooney

Dr. Justin P. Coffey is an Associate Professor of History at Quincy University in Illinois.

According to several news reports, George Clooney’s production company, Smokehouse Pictures, is creating a miniseries on the Watergate scandal, which Netflix might pick up. Watergate won’t be Clooney’s first historical drama, having produced and directed Good Night and Good Luck. That movie showed Clooney is a good filmmaker but a poor historian and viewers should expect more of the same with his Watergate miniseries.

Clooney should be forgiven somewhat for there is nothing more that Hollywood is better at than making bad history. Hollywood has always taken liberties with the past, but that is not the main problem with Clooney’s history. It is his acceptance of historical myths, borne of his politics, that make his dramas suspect, if not more fiction than history.

Take Good Night and Good Luck. Released in 2005, the movie told the story of CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow’s battle against Senator Joseph McCarthy. Critics gave the film mostly positive reviews, and it earned six Academy Award nominations, including for Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Director for Clooney (it didn’t win any). Made in black and white, the film does capture the look of the 1950s when the events took place but what Good Night and Good Luck utterly fails to do is provide any context about the era.

A liberal Democrat, Clooney’s view of the “McCarthy Era” is superficial, one-dimensional, and wrong. The movie does not attempt to explore the real infiltration of the United States government that began during the 1930s. The historical record is now clear, as it was when Clooney was making Good Night and Good Luck, that communists had penetrated the United States government during the 1930s and 1940s, stolen government secrets, and provided information, including details of the Manhattan project, to the Soviet Union. But Clooney was not interested in evidence or the truth and ignored anything that got in the way of his story telling. Determined to write history from his leftist point of view, he cast Murrow as a hero who almost single handily took down McCarthy, which he didn’t, and exposed anti-communism for being nothing more than a modern day Salem Witch Trial. There were no witches in Salem, but there were plenty of communists in the American government.

One of the spies was Alger Hiss, a prominent New Deal Democrat who worked for the State Department and attended the Yalta Conference in 1945. In 1948, a former communist, Whittaker Chambers, testified before the House of Un-American Activities Committee and accused Hiss of having spied for the Soviet Union. Hiss appeared before the committee and angrily denied the charges, leading to a battle over who was telling the truth. Chambers eventually produced documents that he claimed Hiss gave to him, and the “Pumpkin Papers,” as they became known, helped establish the veracity of Chambers’s charges. A federal jury eventually convicted Hiss of perjury.

Richard Nixon, a first-term Republican congressman from California, served on the committee and worked diligently to find out the truth. While originally few believed Chambers, Nixon did and risked his political career taking on Hiss. Nixon was in the right but being correct about Alger Hiss earned him the everlasting enmity of the country’s liberal elites. These elites hated Nixon and the hatred ran so deep that even today some still claim that Hiss was Nixon’s first victim. George Clooney falls into that camp. Hiss gets a brief mention in Good Night and Good Luck, where it is noted that Hiss was convicted of perjury, not treason, the obvious inference being that Hiss was not a traitor but an innocent man convicted on a trumped-up charge of perjury.

The truth is that Alger Hiss was a liar, spy, and traitor and the Left never forgave Nixon for his role in exposing Hiss. Nixon’s fate in Watergate was tied to the Hiss case. When Chambers accused Hiss of spying, the Washington Post came to the latter’s defense and all throughout the hearings and trial the paper sought to discredit Chambers—and Nixon. The Posts relentlessly hostile coverage of Nixon began at that time and never abated.

Bob Woodward’s and Carl Bernstein’s reporting of the Watergate scandal has made them legends. Like Murrow’s role in McCarthy’s fall, their part in bringing about Nixon’s resignation has been greatly exaggerated. Woodward has admitted as much, telling an interviewer in 2004, “To say that the press brought down Nixon, that’s horse—.” But they are lionized as the dragon slayers who brought down the villainous Nixon, a crook who deserved his fate.

Clooney’s Watergate will certainly reflect that viewpoint and the miniseries is as likely to be as one-dimensional as Good Luck and Good Night. Nixon will be the villain and there will be no attempt to try and see the scandal from his point of view. He will be portrayed as a liar and a crook and in the end justice will prevail when Nixon resigns. Maybe Nixon wasn’t all evil and maybe he was an effective president who did more good than harm is a vantage point that Clooney won’t or even can’t consider, any more than he could admit that there were communist spies. History is never as straight forward as Hollywood would like us to believe, and Clooney won’t be the first to distort the past, but the history deserves better than George Clooney.

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