Prime-time, Sunday-night TV is not usually expected to make us smarter or more informed citizens.
Amuse, entertain, engage and occasionally transport — those have traditionally been the primary functions of the TV series and shows we sit down with at the end of our weekend for some relaxation and escape.
But more and more lately, I have been spending my Sunday nights with Showtime and going to bed feeling as if I know more about the complicated, incredibly polarized and Twitter-quick world of American politics and media in which we live. Even I am surprised that I have come to trust the historical context, political perspective and synthesis offered in some of these productions from what I have always thought of as an entertainment channel. I trust them more than I do some broadcast and cable news productions.
In recent months, I have praised “The Circus” for being the best nonfiction series on TV for keeping up in almost real time with the helter-skelter pace and utter chaos of the Trump administration. Its backstage feel for the American political process is unrivaled on television.
And I loved “The Fourth Estate,”a look inside the New York Times coverage of Trump’s White House by Liz Garbus, whom I have to consider our best documentary filmmaker going based on this gem about journalism and her biography of musician and civil rights activist Nina Simone, “What Happened, Miss Simone?”.
Now comes another documentary series this Sunday night at 8 from a team led by another superb documentary filmmaker, Alex Gibney, titled “Enemies: The President, Justice & The FBI.”
The series, which looks at power struggles among U.S. presidents and the Department of Justice and FBI, could hardly be more timely, coming in the wake of Trump’s firing of Attorney General Jeff Sessions and a battle in the Senate to try to protect Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Trump and the 2016 election from being shut down.
That’s just the kind of political-life-and-death clash this documentary series is talking about.
On Thursday, Trump unleashed another fusillade of angry tweets attacking the special counsel team as “Bob Mueller and his gang of Democratic thugs.”
Based on the book “Enemies: A History of the FBI,” by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Tim Weiner, the four-part series opens with a look at the relationship between President Richard Nixon and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. There’s also a leading role for Mark Felt, aka Deep Throat, who did not get to succeed Hoover as he had hoped and started meeting the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward in D.C. parking garages late at night.
Woodward is one of the talking heads in the piece, which gives you a sense of the level of reporting and interviewing that was done for the series. Other witnesses and participants in this history who are part of the conversation in Part 1 are John Dean, the White House counsel to Nixon who blew the whistle during Senate hearings on Nixon’s heavy involvement in the Watergate break-in and the attempted cover-up, and Angelo Lano and Pat Magallanes, two of the FBI agents who investigated the break-in of the Democratic National Headquarters at the Watergate complex in 1972.
In the kind of detail you can only get talking to the people who were there, Lano recounts how he tried to get out of the assignment when he got the call at home because he was about to take his four sons to baseball practice. His supervisor prevailed in part by telling him the assignment would only take a couple of hours of his time.
The level of reporting and archival research is such that viewers will hear audio of a meeting Nixon had with his two top aides, H.R. Haldeman and John D. Ehrlichman, about the break-in and articles in the Post about it.
Nixon asks if L. Patrick Gray, Hoover’s successor as acting director at the FBI, knows who is leaking. Haldeman says nobody in the FBI knows who it is, but he does.
It’s Felt, Haldeman says, but they can’t go after him, because Felt knows all the dirty secrets of the FBI — like the wiretaps, mail openings and anonymous threats sent to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
“If we move on him, he’ll go out and unload everything he knows,” Haldeman says of Felt. “He knows everything that’s to be known in the FBI.”
In case anyone watching doesn’t understand the import of what they are hearing, the documentary cuts to its chief talking head, Weiner, who says, “It would be 33 years before the identity of Deep Throat was revealed to the public. But Nixon had Washington well enough wired that he knew 10 days after the first stories were printed.”
I am an absolute Nixon and Watergate junkie. I believe I have read everything that matters about it. In the 1970s, I interviewed several top officials of the infamous CREEP (Committee for the Re-election of the President) for a book. But I did not know that Nixon’s inner circle knew within weeks of the first Post stories appearing that Felt was Deep Throat. That alone is enough to make me recommend this series.
But that’s only prelude to Part 4, which explores Trump, former FBI Director James Comey, the Russia probe and Mueller. I saw only a rough cut, so I am not going to write at length about what might wind up on the cutting-room floor. But what I saw was more than good enough for me. (Parts 2 and 3 deal with Ronald Reagan’s Iran-contra scandal and investigations of Bill Clinton, respectively.)
And, again, it's Weiner who brilliantly connects some of the dots in Part 4. One of his key observations: The Watergate scandal started with burglars working for the opposition breaking into Democratic National Committee headquarters to try to steal information about the campaign from filing cabinets in 1972.
In 2016, it was cyber thieves breaking into the Democratic computers to steal data that was ultimately used by the opposition in the election.
A central tenet of conventional wisdom about media says that TV is terrible when it comes to providing context, particularly as it relates to news of the day. The medium is supposed to be only concerned about news that’s live, late-breaking and filled with conflict. No time for looking back or making sense of it. That bias, some analysts say, is one of the reasons we are such a jangled, jittery nation.
Well, “Enemies: the President, Justice & The FBI” is wall-to-wall context for one of the most powerful stories in the nation and world today.
Not only might Trump v. Mueller end in the resignation or impeachment of a president, it pits two huge and representative figures against each other in a struggle for nothing less than the American soul. One of them is all public service and moral rectitude, the other private gain and moral transgression.
“Enemies” provides the desperately needed context to understand the history and stakes involved in the outcome. As desperate as these days feel, there is some comfort in understanding the larger institutional forces at play and that, in some ways, we have been here before.
That’s not bad for a premium cable channel in prime time on a Sunday night.