Ty Burr reveals why it's no surprise that the new Nixon movie fell flat its opening weekend

By Ty Burr
August 11, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT
  • Movie

Is Watergate relevant to a new generation?

Okay, pop quiz for anyone born after 1970:

1. Who were the White House Plumbers?
2. What was the ”Saturday Night Massacre”?
3. What was 18 and 1/2 minutes long, who supposedly created it, and how?
4. Who said ”(Expletive deleted)”?

Now, before some of you post ornery flames below along the lines that of courseyou know all the relevant details of a political scandal that happened before you were sentient, let me acknowledge that, yes, you do, and bully for you. But let me further suggest that by far the majority of your peers do not. And that that is nothing to be deeply ashamed of. The specific facts and factoids of history quickly fade from the general cultural consciousness, to be retrieved only if you’re curious, committed, or need to write a school paper. I was born in 1957, and please don’t ask me to tell you what, exactly, the Bay of Pigs was about. Likewise, for most people under 30, Nixon resigned because of Watergate and… uh… What was the question again?

All of which is a roundabout way of asking: What in Sam Hill were the makers of ”Dick” thinking? They’ve gone and made a movie that works as a kind of political-comedy magic realism, in which two perky 15-year-old girls are responsible for just about everything we, the public, know about Watergate. The fact that it is quite a wonderful movie, or that it features two actresses, Kirsten Dunst and Michelle Williams, with solid appeal to the young-adult demographic, or that those actresses turn in marvelous, shaded, expertly droll performances counts for zippo. The thing tanked. Earned a piffling $2.2 million and came in 11th at the weekend box office, well behind even such theatrical laggards as ”Mystery Men” and ”Iron Giant.”

But, please, what did you expect? To anyone not attuned to ”Dick”’s historical frame of reference, that title must sound like porno. A scene where Williams (who’s so smitten with President Nixon that she’s replaced all the Bobby Sherman posters in her bedroom with the Chief Executive’s jowly image) warbles Olivia Newton-John’s ”I Honestly Love You” into a White House tape recorder and gabbles about her puppy love for 18 and 1/2 minutes is delicious to anyone who was able to read the news in 1974 — gee, it explains so much. But for those not in the know, it probably comes across as mildly funny and perhaps even annoying, like being at a party where everyone’s telling jokes you’re not quite well-read enough to get.

As funny as it is, in other words, ”Dick” is another exercise in baby-boomer nostalgia purveyed by a generation that still thinks its experiences mattered more than anything that came after. Of course I think the movie’s a stitch — I was there. But, hey, ask me to sit through a brilliant musical comedy about Adlai Stevenson and his quixotic 1952 run for the presidency. No matter how good it was, I’d probably go for the Bruce Willis haunted-kid flick first.

  • Movie
  • PG-13
Complete Coverage