What the directors Alex Gibney and Jed Rothstein are trying to do with Enemies is draw on previous instances of face-offs between presidents and the FBI to shine some light on the quagmire of the present. And it almost works: Enemies provides ample evidence both that we’ve been here before, and that the current erosion of presidential norms is unprecedented on a vast scale. It’s almost comforting to see Nixon’s press secretary Ron Ziegler rail against what he calls The Washington Post’s “shoddy and shabby journalism” from the podium of the White House briefing room in the first episode. It’s less so when the second episode, which tackles the Iran-Contra affair, is obliged to note that every single person implicated in that scandal got away virtually scot-free.
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Part of the problem is conceptual. Enemies is based on a 2012 book by the journalist Tim Weiner, which documents the FBI’s murky history of illegal surveillance, institutional corruption, and gross incompetence. Six years later, rather a lot has changed, to the point where the series often seems to be lionizing the bureau—and especially its former director, Robert Mueller—as the last front standing between the United States and total authoritarianism. It’s an awkward dance for the series to follow, even if it happens to be true.
There’s very little in Enemies that’s new, and yet it’s still striking to see how repackaging the past can shed light on the present. The first three episodes, directed by Rothstein, run at an hour each, and explore the aforementioned Watergate and Iran-Contra, plus Kenneth Starr’s investigation of Bill Clinton. The fourth, directed by Gibney (Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief; Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room), explicitly considers the firing of James Comey and the Justice Department’s investigation into the Trump campaign’s possible collusion with Russia during the 2016 election. All four episodes, though, seem consumed by Trump and the danger he presents to democracy, to the point where each installment begins and ends with footage from his presidency, juxtaposed with historical moments for maximum emphasis.
What’s most fascinating, and maybe most peculiarly American, is when justice seems to occur accidentally, as a by-product of two ambitious and unethical forces trying to undermine each other. The Watergate episode is unflinching in its presentation of Mark Felt, a.k.a. Deep Throat, as someone trying to secure his own position within the FBI by selective leaking information, rather than a moral crusader. But plenty of those exist, too, though not always the most appealing kinds. Louis Freeh, the director of the FBI during the Clinton administration, is portrayed rather unflatteringly as a righteous zealot whose altar-boy persona made for an awkward fit with a president much less attached to propriety. (“It’s not a conspiracy; it’s just Arkansas” is one of the more memorable quotes that emerges in the series, attributed to the lawyer, Clinton associate, and convicted fraudster Webster Hubbell.)