Flashback Film Friends is a series in which a Jezebel staffer watches a movie she or he has seen a million times, with a staffer who has never seen it once. Then they discuss—just like friends.
The 1999 comedy Dick is, in my opinion, very close to a perfect film. A fictionalized and beautifully dumb retelling of the Watergate scandal, Dick stars Michelle Williams and Kirsten Dunst as Betsy and Arlene, 15-year-old best friends who destroy Richard Nixon’s presidency. The idea of the movie is basically: what if “Deep Throat”—the mysterious informant who provided the Washington Post with information on Nixon’s involvement with the Watergate break-in—was actually just a pair of teens making a prank call? Its release amidst the absurdism of the Monica Lewinsky scandal delighted critics, although some reviews from the New York Times and other outlets featured lines that did not really age well, like Slate’s observation that: “Post-Monica Lewinsky, it isn’t odd to think of wide-eyed airheads wandering the White House.”
Financially, however, it was not a success, grossing only about $6.3 million at the box office. How wrong we were then. Dick was directed by Andrew Fleming (also known for The Craft) and co-written by Fleming and Sheryl Longin, and it follows Betsy and Arlene through a series of unlikely events: while sneaking out to mail a fan letter to teen idol Bobby Sherman outside the Watergate complex, they unknowingly alert police to the break-in at the DNC offices. Then, on a class trip to the White House, the girls recognize G. Gordon Liddy from the night of the break-in, and he’s like, “Oh shit,” but when a staffer brings them in for questioning, they are mostly just excited to meet the president—and are particularly interested in Nixon’s dog Checkers.
Because the girls clearly don’t care to think too hard about this, Nixon opts for flattery, retaining Betsy and Arlene as his official dog walkers and “secret youth advisors,” where they help inspire the end of the Vietnam War and bring about the Nixon-Brezhnev Accord with a tin of pot cookies. Eventually, they turn on the president after hearing tapes of him kicking his dog and yelling about Jews, and subsequently, the paranoid administration turns on them. Prior to her cruel disillusionment, Arlene had fallen in love with Nixon and erected a shrine to him in her bedroom, replacing Bobby Sherman. The 18-and-a-half minute gap in Nixon’s tapes, we learn, was in fact a deleted recording of Arlene confessing her love and singing “I Honestly Love You” by Olivia Newton John.
After rewatching it for the first time, I was relieved and delighted to find that Dick holds up. It’s fast-paced and breathless and does not take itself seriously at all. A historical satire based in the White House felt like an appropriate thing to revisit, given our current political landscape, and there is something oddly comforting about a constitutional crisis being reframed, from the comfortable vantage point of history, as a joke—although it does serve as a grim reminder that the actual goings-on of our present-day West Wing are more ridiculous than anything a screenwriter could have dreamed up in the ‘90s.
When I discovered that our own Megan Reynolds has not seen this classic film, I gasped, and immediately set out to rectify the situation. Here’s our conversation.
Ellie: I remember first watching this with my dad when it came out, and because I had no idea what Watergate was (I was 10), I didn’t really get any of the jokes. I still laughed, though, because the lead actresses were so good (and Will Ferrell’s pouty, egomaniacal Bob Woodward is among his best performances, if very rude to the press), and also because my dad—one of the many Boomers who loved this movie—paused it every five minutes to explain. The thing is, you don’t really have to know any historical details to laugh at a romantic dream sequence in which a 15-year-old fantasizes about being twirled around on the beach by Richard Nixon. Although to be 100 percent honest, Megan and I did peruse the Watergate Wikipedia page for a brief pre-film refresher.
I think Dick evades the “two dumb blondes” trope, which is the only spot where this movie logically could have felt dated. The protagonists are two dumb blondes, but they’re also only 15, an age at which everyone is dumb—and because of this, their vividly melodramatic and self-serious personalities feel real in the best way. Their devotion to each other, and to running around screaming and waving their arms, is the emotional centerpiece of the film. What do you think? Did you like it?
Megan: To my surprise—no offense to you, but more so to my own taste in movies, which is generally trash—I did! What delighted me the most about the movie, aside from the premise, and what has stuck with me since we watched it while eating almond chocolate pudding on your couch, is that as a comedic actress, Michelle Williams is drastically undervalued and underused. Her chemistry with Kirsten Dunst, another actress I truly love, was wonderful? What you said about their personalities feeling real is what’s also stuck with me. It was the right amount of absurd, but what I admired was that it was so innocent and so pure. Nothing about their depiction ever felt cruel, which it very well could have.
Dick felt like the kind of movie that doesn’t really get made anymore—in the same vein as a Wet Hot American Summer, for example. It’s a strange, weird little ensemble comedy that imagines the most bizarre premise and stretches that premise to its very limits. Also, it’s maybe the only political comedy that I will ever watch, even though the parallels between Watergate and our current hellscape feel a bit too close for comfort.
Ellie: I agree about Michelle Williams. Kirsten Dunst is incredible, too—her general self-righteousness, and also the scene where she pretends to cry when her brother gets drafted—but Michelle Williams as Arlene Lorenzo, trembling with passion for a crooked 61-year-old head of state, is a performance I have never forgotten. I love the way Dick just leans all the way into its stupidity. Nixon’s staffers say things like “Do we bomb or not bomb, let’s get this done,” at one point Arlene and Betsy literally barge into a room of people shredding papers and counting piles of cash (“Paper mâché is a hobby of mine,” Nixon tells them), and of course, the dick jokes. “All right, I love Dick!” Arlene screams while traversing a suddenly silent roller skating rink.
I, too, feel frustrated that there aren’t more Dicks out there (please note the joke). Granted, to write a script that’s very funny and very plot-y and very relevant is probably quite hard, but if a movie like this had been made today, I bet it would have had some kind of slick corporate teen girl empowerment message (I found this film very empowering as is, FYI) and the cast would have somehow ended up in Ibiza. Or maybe not, I don’t know. Surprise me, Hollywood! I would love that!
Another stupid thing I loved about this movie is the appearance of Ryan Reynolds. Specifically, how gross he was. How did you feel, the moment you saw him in the iconic butt-picking role of “Chip”?
Megan: When a pudgy (by Hollywood standards, mmk) Ryan Reynolds appeared on the television as the boy Betsy thinks is Nixon chief of staff H.R. Haldeman’s son, I was briefly electrified. I love nothing more than seeing famous people in the incipient stages of their fame; my guess is that in 1999 Ryan Reynolds had no idea he would eventually become Deadpool and also Mr. Blake Lively. He was probably just happy to be included in this delightful romp starring two funny women, Will Ferrell, and Dan Hedaya—an honor just to be asked, really!
To your point about the empowerment angle, and how 2018’s politics and cultural mores would’ve shoehorned something about feminism into this script: I am so very grateful that this was not the case! Stupidity—well-executed and studied—is valuable. We could certainly use more of that. Laughing feels nice when your entire being feels like screaming into a paper bag; stupidity is an easy way to alleviate that!
Something else that I feel we must mention is the aesthetic. The clothing, the interiors, the hair!! All were...so good?
Ellie: Oh my freakin’ god, you are correct. This movie was rooted in a feverish and exaggerated vision of the early 1970s, colorful and just ridiculous enough to enhance the joke. Williams’ and Dunst’s costumes are bananas, right? A nightmare of polyester and plaid, printed bucket hats, flower crowns, crimped hair, and cringe-y Native American headbands. I remember when I first watched this movie, I desperately wanted to own the tiny red spaceship-shaped TV in Arlene’s room. The soundtrack was also stuffed with classics—“Hooked on a Feeling,” “Come and Get Your Love,” “Dancing Queen.” Truly, a feast for the senses.
Megan: A fun fact I just learned is that all of the clothes that Dunst and Williams wore throughout the filming of this movie are all dead stock from the era, found in a warehouse in Denver. The synthetics! The fact that if you lit a match within 15 feet of either actress, they’d have to remove all their clothing so that they would not catch on fire! What was so delightful, aside from their clothes, is that their hair was so distressing, in that very specific early ’70s way when a young woman of 15 could, by dint of a bad pageboy and a headband, look like she was middle-aged.
Though his part was petite, I feel I’d be remiss not to mention Devon Gummersall’s star turn as Larry, Betsy’s brother. He was not hot in My So-Called Life, but in this, he was.
Ellie: I disagree on the point of Devon Gummersall, as I found him not hot in My So-Called Life or in Dick. But in general, I believe we are—thankfully—in agreement. After all these years, Dick is still impressive.