You Can’t Let Dick Run Your Life

Dick (1999)

Michelle Williams and Kirsten Dunst in Dick (1999) | Sony Pictures
Sony Pictures

Remember Watergate? Remember the break-in and the other stuff and Haldeman and the Washington Post? Remember “I am not a crook?” Remember that time a president broke like nine billion laws in the service of naked political venality and it actually kind of mattered a little? Remember Nixon waving from the helicopter one last time?

I mean, I don’t remember any of that shit; I hadn’t been born. But I do remember Dick, Andrew Fleming’s 1999 comedy about the unraveling of our nation’s sweatiest executive—a movie I chanced upon in middle school and have loved since, my appreciation only growing with time. I remember Dick often, actually, and increasingly so over the past few years. It’s perhaps not shocking that a film about a guy having to step down as president because of all the crimes he did would come to loom large in my cultural memory. But I’ve found myself surprised by the ways I’ve returned to it, the particular pieces that won’t let me go. How tenderly I catch myself thinking about it, and the lightness that settles on me every time I watch it again.

Dick, man—it’s tricky.


Dick bombed commercially despite solid reviews, which Fleming has blamed on the difficulty of marketing a film operating on two radically different levels. It’s simultaneously a farce about Watergate in which the downfall of a corrupt president plays out as a comedy of errors, and a ‘90s teen movie in period polyester. Both sides grow out of the very simple question about the scandal that had until then gone unforgivably overlooked: What if Deep Throat was actually a pair of teenage girls?

Arlene (Michelle Williams) and Betsy (Kirsten Dunst), two bubble-headed D.C. best friends, giggle and gasp their way through a series of accidents that tangles them up in the administration’s shenanigans. Sneaking out of Arlene’s Watergate apartment to mail a letter to the “Win A Date With Bobby Sherman” contest, they run into G. Gordon Liddy on the night of the break-in, then again on a school field trip to the White House. The coincidence fires up Nixonian paranoia, leading to an offer from the man himself to be official White House dog walkers and secret youth advisors to the president.

The latter position is an attempt to convince them to keep their mouths shut about anything they see, which backfires spectacularly—they immediately turn around and deliver class presentations on their new gig—except that no one believes them. Of course not; why would they? The concept is ridiculous. Dick is unashamed of its own silliness, happy to lean into the goofy joke or the outrageous twist. In one nice dose of over-the-top absurdity, they run over to Liddy to warn him about the toilet paper on his shoe—toilet paper that turns out to list names with financial connections to the Watergate break-in under the hilarious moniker of the Committee To Re-Elect The President. Can you imagine if our most notoriously creepy elected official had associated himself with a group carrying out illegal operations whose acronym literally spelled out CREEP?

Oh, wait—


Truth may not always be stranger than fiction, but it can get fucking weird. Maybe that’s why Dick so thoroughly spoofs Nixon’s inner circle; despite its many gleeful departures from the facts, the more you know about Watergate, the funnier it is. (My high school contemporary U.S. history teacher assigned it for its treatment of key figures in the scandal; my mother, a huge Watergate nerd, loves it for much the same reason.) All the President’s Men gave us the eternally relevant dictum that “these are not very bright guys, and things got out of hand.” Dick finds pleasure in imagining their folly at a cartoonish scale.

Harry Shearer’s Liddy raves about the Soviet Union of America with a maniacal spark in his eye and a mustache made for tying ladies to train tracks; the girls think they’ve witnessed a jewel heist because they hear him snarl into his walkie-talkie about Operation Gemstone—the actual code name for a set of plans the real Liddy proposed nearly as unbelievable as anything that happens in this film. Henry Kissinger (Saul Rubinek) passive-aggressively snipes about responsibility and vainly frets about publicity and reputation. Bob Haldeman (Dave Foley) asks the girls if they think friendly thoughts about their president before getting distracted by marital drama. My favorite is Jim Breuer’s beleaguered John Dean, chief White House counsel, who sighs in response to being asked why the president needs a lawyer: “Oh, good question. I just…I don’t know.” When he tries to make nice over the discovery of Nixon’s true character, Arlene fires at him, “If you stay, you’re just as bad as he is.” His face collapses with the melodrama of a big-screen teenager brought low by the mean girl’s cutting wit—and he echoes the line when he explains the about-face that turned him into the prosecution’s star witness, accompanied by the event’s real-life headline.

At the center, of course, is Tricky Dick, embodied with marble-mouthed twitchiness by a deliciously grotesque Dan Hedaya. He gargles his words, he snipes at Kissinger, he complains that the dog doesn’t like him (a real anxiety revealed by the tapes) and threatens to fire anyone who suggests he win it over by playing nice. It’s a broad but unmistakably mean caricature that draws both humor and bite from how well-attuned it is to the nightmare cocktail of arrogance and insecurity that defined our 37th president. “All I asked for was a simple bugging,” Nixon grouses; “I don’t know how many times I’ve done that, and here they go and screw it up.” It’s funny as a concept, the president complaining about his illegal wiretapping operation like a Hamptons patriarch bemoaning the difficulty of finding good help these days; it’s funnier, if also darker, knowing that—yeah, that’s pretty much how he viewed it.


Despite the title, Hedaya’s terrific performance, and the myriad jokes that will fly above the heads of anyone but Nixon buffs (I had to look up a throwaway gag about King Timahoe), Dick isn’t Nixon’s movie, and it’s not the sharpness of its satire that keeps me coming back. What I really love about it is the girls. 

And what girls! Williams and Dunst, a combined 35 years old when the movie was shot, breathe delightful, ditzy life into their pair of BFFs. As dreamy Betsy, Dunst’s singular capacity for guilelessness sparkles. Her wide-open eyes are the Sistine Chapel of vacuity, her serene lilt the Beethoven’s Fifth of airheaded beatitude. Williams is Arlene, the serious one and the movie’s ballpoint-doodled heart; she loves Bobby Sherman because he cares about people, but also about nature and ecology. She vibrates with sincerity, at all times spiritually palpitating from the depth and vigor of her adolescent passions. Together they’re less sunshine and shadow than clear skies and one wispy cloud, glitter and polka dots, pink and magenta. Perhaps no moment better encapsulates the two girls than when Arlene announces she has an idea and intones with furrowed brow: “Let’s ask the president to stop the war.” A beat, as the information sinks in. Then as simply as if she’d proposed a trip to the mall, Betsy dons a happy grin and chirps, “Okay!”

They’re not not dumb blondes. Wandering lost through the White House after a dog-walking trip, Betsy muses that she thinks it was a left turn they took and Arlene slowly points out that you couldn’t turn right. But as with their predecessors Romy and Michele, the movie is so thoroughly on their side that it never feels mean. When Arlene earnestly tells Betsy, “He’s the president; he always means what he says,” it’s a joke about their naivete, but who could blame her for her faith? He’s the president, and she’s 15.

Arlene and Betsy are young—palpably so. Amidst its political humor and broad slapstick, Dick finds space to dwell affectionately on this moment at the twilight of childhood, when the first hints of the adult world are just starting tentatively to seep in. We meet them through a long shot on a page set in a typewriter, a nod to the opening shot of All The President’s Men. But instead of words confidently materializing, the camera doesn’t move as Betsy painstakingly hits three digits and a typo, carefully dabs white-out over her mistake, blows on it, and tries again, not quite patient enough to wait for it to dry, and eager, as she tells Arlene, to get her practice in for typing class.

This is their world: the lovingly tended minutiae of adolescence, twin lives illuminated by a montage of failing to insert one’s first contact lens or a close-up of nail polish steadily striping one toe red. Their concerns are frivolous but deeply felt; their opinions passionate and built on shallow foundations. Betsy messily applies the kind of lip gloss never worn by anyone over 15 to strategically flirt with White House security; Arlene does the bust-increasing exercise immortalized by Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret while they talk on the phone.

They’re kids, trying on the postures of grown-upness like new shoes. Arlene proclaims, each word defiantly enunciated, “Some people think that Mick Jagger’s lips are gross, but I think that they’re sexy.” It’s such a perfectly observed snapshot of that slice of time spent playing with the concept of desire before you learn what desire really is, where the boldness of imagining yourself as someone who might want such a thing matters more than the wanting itself. “You’re so hard rock now,” Betsy coos, impressed with her friend’s fresh coolness in the manner of the wholly uncool; Arlene protests, but she’s smiling. The performance she’s learned looks like adulthood has found its rightful audience.

In my favorite scene, they bake cookies to win their way back into the Oval Office while Betsy muses about Arlene’s father, killed in a car crash before she was born. “No offense, but it’s obvious you’re being lied to,” she says before spinning a fantastic tale of fame and secrecy, scandal and heartbreak. In awed reverence Arlene declares, “My life is so tragic.” It reminds me of a line from A. S. Byatt’s Possession: A Romance—“Young girls are sad. They like to be; it makes them feel strong”—a line I resent and love in equal measure and for the same reason: I wish I didn’t recognize my own young self in it, but I do. How awful it felt, but in my memory particular strains of tragedy took on after some time a rosy lustre it’s hard to believe wasn’t there all along in the months spent luxuriating in little heartbreaks.

Of course at the time I couldn’t distinguish the elegant aches from the harsh ones, and that’s part of the fun of Arlene and Betsy, too: the perspective-annihilating myopia of teenhood. Bobby Sherman should pick Arlene because (number one) she loves him and (number two) she just thinks he’s cute and (most importantly) they’re soulmates—cosmic destiny and nice eyes weighted equally, with no awareness of how many ways there are to feel things besides completely. Later, after the girls stumble on Nixon’s incriminating tapes, Betsy hurls at him a similarly flattened litany of complaints: “You kicked Checkers, and you’re prejudiced, and you have a potty-mouth!” All sins equally reprehensible, and in her mind all really the same sin at their core: the sin of betrayal, which young hearts feel most keenly.


On the night of the break-in, we see two of the men involved spying on the building before the action gets underway. They train their binoculars on Arlene’s bedroom, where two teenage girls are entertaining themselves on a pink shag carpet, unaware that they’re being watched. “I’m thinking the one doing cartwheels,” says one of the men with lecherous intent, finishing the sentence with a series of repulsive slurps. It’s a brief moment at the edge of a darkness the movie never again approaches, but it’s useful for clarifying the alignment of the film: Arlene and Betsy are dumb kids, but the adults in charge are way worse.

This extends even to the usual heroes of the story. Dick trades in the dramatic powerhouse dream team of Redford and Hoffman for sketch comedy veterans Will Ferrell and Bruce McCulloch, who make quick work of presenting a version of Woodward and Bernstein totally stripped of their dignity. Ferrell’s Woodward is snotty and prideful; as Bernstein, McCulloch pokes at him like a yapping dog eager to get in on his scoop. They come into the story by chance when Betsy and Arlene prank call the Post, and keep their source secret not out of journalistic integrity but because it’s too embarrassing to reveal that they owe their journalistic triumph to a pair of daffy 10th-graders.

In place of dogged and intrepid reporting, Dick locates Nixon’s downfall in the same place its story starts: a girl with a crush. Enthralled by the attention of such an important man, earnest, politically minded Arlene falls for Tricky Dick. Williams’ fluttering, cracked-open face is a wonder, capturing the thrill and agony of adolescent ardor. She laughs nervously in his presence; lovingly replaces her Bobby Sherman collages with cut-outs of the man recently ousted as our nation’s least attractive president; and dreams of a romantic beach getaway, white horse and all. (Her moral compass is on display even in fantasy: “What about Pat?” she asks dream-Nixon, who reassures her, “She understands.”) When the girls stumble on a tape recorder in the Oval Office desk, they see it as an opportunity for her to pour out her passion—all 18 ½ minutes of it—until the rewind button reveals to them Nixon’s less savory side.

It’s a shrewd touch that, as in real life, the true architect of Nixon’s demise is his own mix of cockiness and paranoia. After a confrontation about his poor treatment of the dog which Nixon needlessly escalates by brandishing the reams of background he had his men dig up about two hapless kids, Arlene and Betsy are ready to move on with their lives. It’s Dick who sucks them back in, sending a honeypot to seduce Arlene’s mom and breaking into Betsy’s house. The man who abused the highest office in the land for political gain before an election he was near-guaranteed to win in a landslide taps their phone lines and places them under surveillance. When a shady van chases them into a pile of garbage bags in the rain, Arlene hits her breaking point: “How dare these people keep treating us like stupid teenage girls!” Betsy, tearful, replies: “We are stupid teenage girls.” But Arlene is resolute. “No, Betsy—we’re human beings. And we’re American citizens. And fourscore and seven years ago our forefathers did something, I don’t know what, but I do know one thing: Dick’s ass is grass.”

It’s a funny moment, a silly line, a bit of zany gung-ho movie magic, but when I watch it now, it makes me cry. Because they are stupid teenage girls, and they are human beings, both. Because it’s funny but also wildly cathartic to live for a moment in a world that sends the rules of power topsy-turvy, where two nothings get one over the biggest dick of all. Because when Nixon first meets them, he remarks of his own daughters at that age, “If it wasn’t about make-up or Frankie Avalon, they didn’t give a hoot,” and he’s right but he’s wrong, too: right about the scope of your world before life’s given you reason to expand it, wrong about how quickly you can adjust if you need to. Wrong to discount what stupid teenage girls can do when they care.

In the parking garage with the reporters once they’ve decided to sell Dick out, the girls study a newspaper photo of Nixon’s circle to try to identify which of the men they’ve met was on the tape. Betsy remarks, “I never realized how much they all look alike.” I never used to notice that line, but it stuck out to me, revisiting it after spending four years watching every late night comedian in the country try to one-up each other in describing various cabinet officials as [throws a dart, spins a wheel] a drawing of a serial killer voted “Most Likely To Mansplain” made in a child psychiatrist’s office by a drunk 11-year-old with a broken arm. Dick’s too smart to oversell itself as a Girl Power narrative, but I was a stupid teenage girl once, too. It’s a relief, now more than ever, to live for a while in a story about a bad man that doesn’t belong to him or any other. A story where it matters that justice triumphs, but the rest of life matters, too—maybe even a little bit more.


Dick is a movie about politics, about Watergate, about the genuine hurt a young person feels the first time they learn the adults in the room can lie to them; it’s a movie, in Fleming and co-writer Sheryl Longin’s telling, about personalizing the national reckoning wrought by the administration’s shameless misbehavior. It’s good at being all of those things, funny and sharp and bold. But to me, more than Hedaya’s shaking jowls or Liddy’s list of creeps, it’s a movie about two friends.

Arlene and Betsy’s friendship shines through every scene, from Betsy’s adorably sincere conviction that Arlene is a genius to Arlene’s offer to hold off on stopping the war in case Betsy wants her brother to ship off so she can get his room. Their friendship carries the marks of their youth. Their one moment of friction comes when Betsy spots Arlene drawing Nixon’s name in her notebook and wilts, wounded by the thought that Arlene is keeping this new development to herself. Their love, though—it’s real. Their bond feels lived-in and cozy, like something we’re getting to peek into rather than an image constructed as we watch: skipping home from school hand-in-hand like little kids, running through a familiar list of their usual targets for prank calls. 

The world of Betsy and Arlene is insular and adoring, an oasis amidst the slings and arrows of teenage pettiness and federal criminality. After their first White House misadventure, they return to their class as pariahs; their lateness has caused their bus to miss the special field trip lunch at McDonald’s. Under their teacher’s reproving eye, they slump wincingly down the aisle, averting their gaze as their hostile classmates accost them with middle fingers and cruel whispers: They’re so stupid; I hate you. But as soon as they slide into their seat, they meet each other’s eyes, just barely, and dissolve easily into laughter, the outside world receding in the pleasure of a secret shared.

That’s the real reason Dick has lingered with me for so long. Sure, it’s nice to watch a powerful man come undone by two plucky teens he made the mistake of underestimating. But even aside from the candy-colored particulars of this fantasy, I mean, Ford pardoned Nixon, like, instantly. Victory against power is always hard-fought and often fleeting, old battlelines refusing to fade. When Betsy confidently states as Nixon resigns, “They’ll never lie to us again,” it’s the movie’s darkest laugh. Friendship, though—that’s something you can keep. Loyalty and affection, camaraderie and care, the fundamental human gift of not being alone—you can hold on to that. And it matters, it does, not as a counterweight but as a balm.

The sequence I think of most often is the movie’s spin on the origins of the Deep Throat moniker. After Betsy’s parents catch her brother at a showing of the infamous film, Arlene confesses, “I don’t understand the title of that porno movie.” Although they’re alone, Betsy leans over to whisper a sweetly clinical description of a blow job, the kind parents might use with kids when they’re no longer able to dodge the question. Upon finishing, she tilts her head to watch Arlene take it in. It takes a moment to process; then she screws up her face and starts shrieking, running to the window as if by demons driven. Arlene follows her and for a moment we watch the two of them, screaming in horror and delight, overcome like congregants at a revival by the spirit of youth and the phantom of sex and the bliss of having someone at your side for every uncertain step.