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

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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."

AP

ON SUNDAY

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

"It sure is quiet in here," Bernstein observes, surveying the remodeled news operation centered around a starship bridge of high-def TV screens. Gone is the clatter of typewriters and jangling of phones; gone is the ability to chain-smoke at one's desk, the way Bernstein did. ("Why did things have to change?" Woodward jokingly asks.)

Rather than revel in newspaperdom's former glories, "All the President's Men Revisited" asks a very good question: If a president's reelection committee authorized the break-in of the other party's campaign offices, how would the story unfold now? How would it be reported? How would it play?

Marcus Brauchli, The Washington Post's executive editor at the time of the film crew's visit, gives an eloquent answer that takes into account the new media landscape and why things can never be like they were.

As he describes how Twitter users and partisan watchdogs would pounce on the news of the Watergate break-in, the screen itself splinters into an effective chaos of sources, voices and information, which would simultaneously advance, spin and debunk the break-in and its impact.

What took Woodward and Bernstein (and other news organizations and, lest anyone forget, prosecutors) weeks and months to piece together could come together in a day or two; the work would happen at those very cubicles Bernstein finds so unsettlingly quiet, as wonks wearing headphones dive deep into databases. Professional and amateur reporters would be following the money, in real time.

"All the President's Men Revisited" spends just enough time on this sort of thing without becoming one more ambivalent documentary about the future of news. Instead, it turns to the epic tragedy that was Nixon himself.

By the time the "smoking gun" tape brings the president down, the film struggles to maintain the artful distance it had so capably established for two hours; those who are old enough to remember their anger and outrage quickly rediscover it. The tape unspools and the paranoia takes hold.

"It's hard to get past the tapes," political consultant Mary Matalin observes. "Just the insanity."

"The real Nixon is on those tapes," Bernstein says. "It is a road map of his mind, it is a road map of his presidency."

Ben Stein, who is glimpsed as a young man in the footage of White House staffers listening to Nixon's farewell speech in the East Room ("My mother was a saint," etc.), reflects on it once more: "It's really sad. I don't think any president has been more persecuted than Nixon. I think he was a saint." Then Stein breaks into tears, which comes off as both ridiculous and moving, depending on the viewer.

This is the first project I've seen that seems to understand that, when it comes to Watergate, there is something about it that remains deeply personal, and not just for the people who experienced it firsthand. We live -- and even thrive -- in the crater it left behind.

 

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