Andrew Fleming’s “Dick”, a spoof of “All the President’s Men” in which Deep Throat is re-imagined as a pair of bubbly fifteen year old girls, was generally well received upon its release, such as Stephanie Zacharek’s review for Salon, but it did not possess much staying power, finishing just behind David Spade’s un-immortal “Lost and Found” at the box office, nor leave much of cultural imprint. Perhaps that was because it was buried by “The Sixth Sense” avalanche (released the same week), or perhaps it was because in the wake of President Clinton’s sexual malfeasance people were simply tired of political scandals. Still, six years later, when Mark Felt was finally revealed as Deep Throat, “Dick” briefly experienced a renaissance, highlighted by Sasha Issenberg’s piece for Slate in which he argued that Fleming’s film underscored how the ultimate answer to our great national mystery could never be as good as we hoped. Yet now, here in the midst of All This, with words like Nixon and Truth and Gate and Tapes re-entering our lexicon, or getting tossed around willy-nilly, whichever you prefer, “Dick” has yet again been resurrected, perhaps because, in its own way, “Dick” knows that people are, as Mr. X once opined, suckers for the truth. (Aren’t they?)
The teenyboppers in question, Betsy Jobs (Kirsten Dunst) and Arlene Lorenzo (Michelle Williams), are mostly goodhearted if utterly oblivious, acutely exemplified in an early sequence after they have become official, so to speak, White House dog walkers. This happens when they are spotted on a White House class trip by G. Gordon Liddy (Harry Shearer, underused but hilariously unctuous), who remembers them from the Watergate complex, where Arlene lives, the night of the infamous break-in, leading Nixon himself (Dan Hedaya) to put out a fire that may not exist by inviting the girls to walk his not-so-beloved, as we see, cocker spaniel Checkers. This makes Betsy and Arlene late to the bus, ruining a class trip to McDonald’s, for which they admonished, by teacher and fellow students, which they despondently accept for but a moment before collapsing into a fit of giggles. Whatever! That’s so three seconds ago! This, as odd is it might sound, makes them the perfect surrogates, entering the Watergate Crisis fray with no preconceived notions of absolutely anything.
As they do most everything, Dunst and Williams play their Meet Cute, of sorts, with President Nixon perfectly, as if they have just been allowed backstage at a Bobby Sherman concert, with Williams bashfully avoiding eye contact and Dunst unleashing a grin so huge her cheeks nearly burst. “Call me Dick,” Nixon says and they do. Hedaya’s performance, while occasionally menacing, is often like a square dad trying to evince charm he doesn’t have, not that it matters. He’s the President! The President of the United States! Betsy and Arlene have been taught to respect the office by their elders, whether their parents or their obligatorily curmudgeon teacher, and so they do. It’s just that their respect takes the form of something more like star worship, bringing to mind Charlie Pierce’s terming Politico as Tiger Beat on the Potomac, particularly Arlene who finds herself in the throes of a schoolgirl crush, niftily evoking any Cult of the President, be it the MAGA sect, be it the disciples of Barry slow-jamming the news, be it dopes (read: me) who have George Washington For President buttons on their wall.
It does not take long, however, for Nixon’s untowardness to surface and Betsy and Arlene to turn against him, though to Fleming’s credit he does not portray the girls’ turn as simple crazed teenage jealousy. No, they see the President for who he is, which is not so much a variation on the old standard about a President you can have beer with as it is a rendering of the façade of the office itself making the President above reproach crumbling. Betsy and Arlene might not grasp the finer points of the Paris Peace Accords, but they know an insincere horse’s ass when they see one, and they know the difference between right and wrong. And while their covert communication with Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein might begin as a mere prank, by the end the two girls are made to realize that country comes over faux-king.
This is a comedy, of course, and so the intrepid reporters of the Washington Post are less heroic and more bickering and vainglorious, with Ferrell playing the self-important straight man to Bruce McCulloch’s, getting great mileage just from his feathery mane, side-splitting burlesque. They are willing to listen to the girls because of their craven careerism, but that they listen is still something of an outlier in comparison to the movie’s other adults. Betsy and Arlene’s teacher orders the sycophancy of the institution of the President; Betsy’s parents dismiss Woodward and Bernstein as “muckraking bastards”; Arlene’s mother, played by Teri Garr in a too-little-screen-time supporting performance, says “There is something very strange going on here. And I don’t want to know what it is.” In other words, they are ostriches burying their heads in the sand.
“We the People of the United States” kicks off the Constitution because We the People, as so many have noted over the last 200+ years, give power to the Government. The President is not our boss, we are his, which, while something everyone learns in high school civics, is not something everybody seems to remember, as All This re-proves, as you get older. And sometimes what it takes to remind us of our civic – nay, patriotic, in the actual sense of the word – obligation is a couple teenage girls who might not have actually read their civics lesson for the week but live it out anyway.