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Washington: Behind Closed Doors

Release Year:      1977

Studio:      Acorn Media

Format:      Colour; NTSC; Boxed Set

Rated:      Not Rated; Contains coarse and offensive language

# of Discs/Episodes:      3/6

Running Time:      550 minutes

DVD Release Date:      June 5, 2012

Creators:      David W. Rintels

Directors:      Gary Nelson

Actors:       Cliff Robertson, Jason Robards, Stefanie Powers, Robert Vaughn, Lois Nettleton, John Houseman, Andy Griffith

DVD Features:      SDH subtitles; 8-page booklet with articles on the historical background of the program, the Vietnam War, peace movements in America, Nixon’s visit to China, and the Watergate scandal; plus brief biographies of the political figures of the period.

E:Top Picks Rating:      8.5/10

Acorn Media Write-up:      Showcasing high-stakes political intrigue at its best, the award-winning miniseries inspired by the Nixon presidency, WASHINGTON: BEHIND CLOSED DOORS, debuts on home video. Based on the post-Watergate novel, “The Company”, by former Nixon advisor John Ehrlichman, the seven-time Emmy nominated program stars Cliff Robertson (“Falcon Crest”, “Spider-Man”, and Best Actor Academy Award for “Charly”), two-time Oscar winner Jason Robards (“All the President’s Men”, “Julia”), two-time Emmy nominee Stefanie Powers (“Hart to Hart”), and Robert Vaughn (“The Magnificent Seven”), who won for outstanding supporting actor in a drama series. Broadcast on ABC in 1977, the acclaimed miniseries co-stars Andy Griffith (“Matlock”) and John Houseman (“The Paper Chase”). The DVD 3-disc set includes six episodes, plus an 8-page viewer’s guide with articles on the historical background of the program.

CIA director Bill Martin (Cliff Robertson) knows that an incoming president means a new direction for the country – and another set of eyes on the top secret Primula Report. Martin tries to build a rapport with his new boss, but President Richard Monckton (Jason Robards) is more interested in settling old scores and cleaning house with the help of the FBI.

Against the backdrop of a war in Southeast Asia and antiwar protests at home, this political drama tells the story of an increasingly paranoid president, an administration under siege, and a reckless group of White House aides desperate to hold on to power.

Jon Ted Wynne Review:      Revisiting TV programs from the 1970s invites comparison to what is being produced on television today. Shows like “The West Wing” have set a new standard for dramatizing politics. Yet a superior mini-series like WASHINGTON: BEHIND CLOSED DOORS holds up very well for any number of reasons: the timeless story that reminds us that absolute power corrupts absolutely; the incredible assembly of first-rate actors including Jason Robards and Robert Vaughn (who won an Emmy for his efforts); and the direction, which includes any number of impressive shots at a time when television production was still considered a static, rather than a visual, medium. What doesn’t hold up as well is the technical standard of production, which serves as a reminder of the wonders of the digital age. Some of the footage in WASHINGTON: BEHIND CLOSED DOORS is inevitably quite grainy.

Fortunately, content trumps technical specifics every time, and the political machinations of WASHINGTON: BEHIND CLOSED DOORS make for some fascinating viewing.

My first reaction as the story unfolded was “here comes another Hollywood Liberal Democratic indictment of Republicanism”, but as the storyline unfolded, it became clear the scope was not so narrow-minded. Although some of the effects, such as freeze frames, are dated, some unabashedly over-the-top performances propel the series into the realm of Greek Tragedy. There is genuine amazement, horror, remorse and hope for justice in the proceedings and this keeps the series from falling into the category of mere Democratic diatribe. Let’s face it, Nixon is an easy target. With source material written by one of the ex-president’s closest associates, even the most outlandish behaviour (the president’s paranoia, for example) is believable even while being eminently theatrical. Fortunately, the cumulative effect is more “look at what happened to our country and how much of it is still true” without painting so obvious a picture as a “Them VS Us” scenario, which, let’s be honest, would only satisfy about half the audience. The abuse of power on display is not about one particular party, it is rather a warning to us all that even in a free society, governments can and frequently do fail, especially when those at the top of the food chain are permitted to wallow in greed, paranoia and fear.

The allusion to Greek Tragedy is appropriate, for taking this road of exploiting the obvious theatricality of the series elevates the story to a more neutral plain. Because of the delicate balancing act between theatrics and realism achieved by the director, this expert blending of stylistic choices does not prevent fine actors like Cliff Robertson from being wholly natural and believable. There is some beautifully nuanced work by him, Lois Nettleton and Harold Gould, especially, to name a few. Contrast this with Robards’ theatricality, Vaughn’s Machiavellian manipulations and Nicholas Pryor’s whining simp of an “I’ll do anything to get ahead” character, and you’ve got a wide range of dramatic dynamics to keep things interesting.

Less successful in the overtly theatrical front is Andy Griffith as a president modeled after the charismatic Lyndon B. Johnson. His performance in the role does not ring true. Griffith is an outstanding and beloved actor, but this time he misses the mark. Conversely, Stefanie Powers’ character is underwritten. Her performance simply doesn’t register on this grand scale, preventing her from having any significant impact on the audience. Powers plays the mistress of Cliff Robertson. Eventually, when he returns to his wife it becomes clear that this sub-plot is a metaphor for “a country steered off course for awhile but finding its way back,” or, more simply, a return to values and morality. Ultimately it is a purely functional part and could have been played just as effectively by a no-name actress. Powers is as talented and beautiful as ever, but she is wasted in this role.

American politics, it seems from this Canadian’s perspective, has always been about extremes. Perhaps this is inevitable with a two-party system. Polarization between the Republicans and Democrats was arguably never so extreme as during the double whammy crises of the Vietnam War and Watergate. This is fertile ground for drama and WASHINGTON: BEHIND CLOSES DOORS does not disappoint. Perhaps the timing of this DVD release by Acorn Media is appropriate to an election year. Question is, will current political scandal and intrigue turn out to be as interesting as that depicted in this long but rewarding mini-series? One would hope not.