April 21, 2013

Redford revisits Watergate in stirring documentary

'All the President's Men Revisited' brings new understanding of the old scandal and its effects.

By HANK STUEVER, The Washington Post

Around The Washington Post, the offer of watching a two-hour documentary about how its reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein chased the Watergate story is about as appealing as taking the car into the shop to get the tires rotated.

click image to enlarge

Carl Bernstein, left, and Bob Woodward, shown in The Washington Post newsroom on May 7, 1973, add their perspective to "All the President's Men Revisited."



"All the President's Men Revisited" (two hours) airs at 8 p.m. Sunday on Discovery.

Yet here I sit, thoroughly absorbed by executive producer/narrator Robert Redford's "All the President's Men Revisited," a fresh and even stirring reminiscence airing Sunday on Discovery.

Redford and his crew, including director Peter Schnall, stylishly manage what countless think tank and j-school panel discussions struggle to do -- cut through the recollections of the major players (Woodward, Bernstein, their boss Ben Bradlee, Nixon White House counsel John Dean, etc.) and utilize their well-trod anecdotes and war stories in a way that seems new.

Because let's face it: Watergate is fading before our eyes. For measuring distance, we in 2013 are now farther away from the events portrayed in the film "All the President's Men" than the film "Bonnie and Clyde" was from the real Bonnie and Clyde.

Richard Nixon himself is nearly 20 years gone. Mark Felt, the former FBI official who outed himself as "Deep Throat" in 2005, died four-plus years ago.

And while The Post legends and ex-White House staffers (the film also talks to Hugh W. Sloan, Bud Krogh and Alexander Butterfield) come across as a relatively hale bunch in this film, it is in fact the younger interview subjects who do the most to revivify the entire saga as both a political and cultural watershed.

Thus Jon Stewart of "The Daily Show" shares a bit of the ubiquitous and jowly impression of Richard Nixon he used to do as a boy.

"Ten years old (and) I had my Nixon down," Stewart says in the film. "Now I have a much more complex view of the man and his presidency. The sad truth is, I think Nixon would by today's standards be considered maybe a conservative Democrat, (and) maybe at some levels a radical leftist."

And MSNBC's Rachel Maddow, who was a toddler during the Watergate hearings, is always good at giving history's constitutional crises a relevant place in today's conversation: "Richard Nixon is now the guy who, when you see photos of him even at his prime, you cannot believe he was ever president of the United States."

It's smart of Redford and company to acknowledge all this. But their "All the President's Men Revisited" is no Watergate for Dummies, either; it is as concerned with the historical ramifications as it is with the imprint on popular lore and culture.

Through his narration, Redford, who portrayed Woodward in Alan J. Pakula's still popular 1976 movie, makes clear that he's working out a couple of things here: What is Watergate's resonance? What do we -- as a culture -- remember most? What's different about the world now when compared to the world of 1972?

He's as interested in talking to people like Sloan and Dean as he is in talking to his old pal (and co-star) Dustin Hoffman, who played Bernstein.

"I was amazed by Woodward and Bernstein's resolve," Redford tells the viewer. "There's nothing glamorous about what they were doing, but I thought it was important to portray the tedium, the hard work. And the feelings about the film from the studio's standpoint was (that the story was) noncommercial."

Now Redford and his crew return with Woodward, Bernstein and Bradlee to the newsroom on the fifth floor of the Post building on 15th Street that is currently for sale, probably as a teardown. With Vanity Fair photographer Annie Leibovitz there to document them, and Discovery's cameras documenting that, and a newsroom full of Post staffers observing this A-list distraction with equal measures of admiration and weariness ("Watergate, again?"), an awkward vibe of cinema verite sets in.

(Continued on page 2)

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