Dick (1999)


Directed by Andrew Fleming

Dick is a comedy about a world that must have made very little sense at the time.  It’s not about any one character so much as it is an effort to explain a bunch of things that were beyond comprehension.  The film opens with the Watergate burglary, and it ends with Richard Nixon’s impeachment and departure from the White House.

In between those two moments the story follows two teenage girls, Betsy and Arlene (Kirsten Dunst, Michelle Williams), best friends who inexplicably become President Nixon’s dog walker.  This plot development, almost like everything about the story, is completely absurd, but the humor comes form just how absurd it is.  So in a way this film feels like it delves into some sort of magical realism.  It makes all the turmoil feel less sinister and much more innocent, particularly because so much of the story’s action (and real life events) are driven by Betsy and Arlene.  Really, the film is very much like Forrest Gump, in which Forrest was somehow at the center of almost every big political and national moment during the 60s.

In Dick, President Nixon is made out to be the same slimy guy he’s often been portrayed as (a “crook”), but he’s unlikeable because he’s paranoid and vindictive.  In terms of policy, he seems wonderful.  For example, Nixon ends the war in Vietnam when the girls tell him how much people hate the war.  It’s nice to see a politician who’s willing to listen and take action, though of course this is so far from reality that it can only be viewed as wish fulfillment.  What if this is how the world worked?

Betsy and Arlene have unlimited access to the White House, it seems.  They get private meetings with the President (though only because they live at the Watergate Hotel, and Nixon is scared that they know about the break in), and they deliver weed cookies to the White House staff (and Nixon himself).  The President comes across as impressionable and much more naive than I’m guessing he was.  Really, he was Donald Trump.  Except rather than talk down about women, he talks down about his dog, Checkers.  This is what turns Betsy and Arlene against him.  Up until they hear the recording of him angrily cursing out his dog, they had been in love with him.  After they hear the recording, they can’t stand him.

This is how Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein broke their story.  “Deep Throat” turns out to be Betsy and Arlene, ratting on the President and getting him impeached.

On one hand, Dick is full of juvenile humor, dick jokes and a story that explains rather than informs.  It’s a comedy, though, and none of that matters if it’s funny, which it is.  The dick jokes could become tired, and the plot points predictable, but it never felt that way.  There is so much glee with which this story is told.  Its bright and bold.

Betsy and Arlene are immature, but their immaturity and ultimate influence on the President is the biggest joke.  They talk quickly and never listen.  When the President asks them to keep their roles in the White House a secret, they almost immediately spill the beans during a class presentation.  No one believes them, of course.

The film creates this world that is very functional on the surface (from Betsy’s brother’s perspective, for example, the world is exactly as it was to anyone who lived through this time), but from we see as the viewer, there is this magical world hidden in plain view.  I think the entire tone of the movie is best symbolized by the cookies the girls make for the President and his staff.  They don’t realize that there is weed mixed in with the walnuts (their naivete dominates everything), and when the President eats the cookies, he almost immediately gets high.  It’s a simplification of how marijuana works and the effects it has on a person.

Most movies do this, whether its with drugs or alcohol or something else.  They play off the public opinion (and misconception) of that influence.  In this way the film operates very broadly.  There is no effort to explain how the cookies work, instead it’s used as a simple joke.  The story makes a joke of everything about Nixon, politics and the 70s and nothing more.  I’m having trouble finding something else to say about the film, but the central point of the film (to explain things that have no explanation) is fascinating.

It’s a puzzle, and Fleming is saying “what if this happened?”  Of course it’s not what happened, but by making the explanation of those mysteries such a joke, he’s making the idea of the mystery a joke too.  Who cares what happened?

Okay, maybe people care.  But then, maybe the questions were asked so many times that it became tired.  I can imagine Fleming engaging in debates about the undoing of the Nixon administration, and the identity of Deep Throat.  The discourse becomes redundant and maybe a little aggressive.  So he tells them to shut up and presents this story.  It undercuts the seriousness of the scandal as well as the seriousness of the President himself.


But the film ultimately makes the world of this story feel optimistic.  Anything can happen, and things move quickly (when in reality politics feels like it moves very slowly).  This optimism, of course, comes from the girls’ perspectives, and they are very much full of life.  Again, they’re just naive.  I suppose there probably shouldn’t be any big takeaways from this movie, but it does show how your view of the world can actually warp the world itself.  Just watch this and All The President’s Men back to back.

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