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'Watergate' review: Superb, obsessive documentary -- but not for the casual viewer

President Richard Nixon in the Oval Office on

President Richard Nixon in the Oval Office on June 23, 1972. Credit: History / National Archives and Records Administration

DOCUMENTARY SERIES "Watergate"

WHEN|WHERE Friday, Saturday and Sunday at 9 p.m. on History

WHAT IT'S ABOUT Software entrepreneur and Oscar-winning director (for 2010's "Inside Job") Charles Ferguson has assembled dozens — or in his words "many of the most important surviving participants" — to explore the vast Watergate conspiracy, of which only a smart part involved the break-in at Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate complex on June 17, 1972. He has also assembled a handful of distinguished (mostly English) actors for dramatic re-creations of taped Oval Office discussions in the Nixon White House. They include  Will Keen ("The Crown"), who plays the president's counsel and assistant for domestic affairs, John Ehrlichman. Tony winner Douglas Hodge (2010's "La Cage Aux Folles") is Richard Nixon.

MY SAY What was Watergate? The Washington Post's Bob Woodward seems like someone best equipped to answer that tricky question and does here. Watergate, he says, was "the five wars. The first against the anti-war movement, then against the news media, the war against Democrats, the war against justice and the war against history."  This sweeping six-part film wages them all over again, in exhaustive, occasionally intricate, detail.

Ferguson's "Watergate" in fact is a marvel of obsession, full of endless details — some fascinating, many less so — and enough footage to swamp even the wonkiest of Watergate junkies. Everything is here, and everyone, or almost everyone, and those that aren't have either died or may still have something to hide. It's a veritable who's who of Watergate figures: burglars, lawyers, legislators, counselors, reporters, editors, investigators, senators, officials, judges and one beset president. A few were saints, a few more sinners. Dan Rather is here to relive the defining story of his career, Lesley Stahl, too. Woodward and his Post colleague Carl Bernstein have told theirs so many times you'd think the varnish would've been stripped off of those memories by now. But they're not, or at least not here. Ferguson clearly demanded of his subjects specifics and details and particulars. They were provided, lending "Watergate" an immersive and occasionally anodyne quality. "Immersive" however usually wins.

Then, there are the re-creations. Hodge does a brilliant impression of Edward G. Robinson's Johnny Rocco from "Key Largo."  His Nixon, alas, is initially less persuasive. A reason perhaps is that this isn't meant to be an impression at all. Hodge instead channels a heightened sense of tragic inevitability in his subject. As the clouds gather, the jowls drop. The shoulders collapse, the legs cross tightly. His Nixon — at least in the later hours — looks like someone who would like to tighten up in a ball and disappear.

At first these re-creations  are distracting, if not comical. Then something remarkable happens: You begin to look forward to them. Each has been staged perfectly, the words phrased clearly and concisely. They begin to reveal how Watergate did in fact happen -- word by word, each leading to a deed more irreversible than the next. Soon enough Nixon and team have been swallowed whole by the python of their own making, with the outcome inevitable.

Ferguson not once gets in the way of the story by suggesting some sort of contemporary parallel with the current president or  special counsel. He doesn't have to. His "Watergate" proves that history just happens. The final act is more remarkable -- or implausible — than anyone could possibly imagine. Nixon's own "war against history" proved that.

BOTTOM LINE Superb, but not for the casual viewer

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