I’ve long considered All the President’s Men, the Oscar-winning 1976 chronicle of the Watergate affair and its fallout as reported by Washington Post writers Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, to be one of the best films I’ve ever seen. Even if you don’t share that opinion, however, you’re almost certain to be spellbound by All the President’s Men Revisited, a riveting two-hour special premiering tonight on Discovery Channel.
Narrated by Robert Redford, who played Woodward in the feature film and serves as executive producer on this special, this fascinating documentary assembles many of the key figures from that surreal moment in presidential history – including a very eloquent John Dean, who was President Richard Nixon’s lawyer – to offer their viewpoint on this mind-boggling two-year event, with the invaluable clarity that comes from four decades of reflection.
The Watergate affair and its implications have been parsed so repeatedly over the years that you shouldn’t tune in expecting any major new bombshells. What this new special delivers in spades, however, is context that may have you looking at some of these events in a different light. Several of the talking heads, for example, keep shaking their heads at Nixon’s absolutely staggering propensity for denial. In an archival interview, former Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater talks about going to the Oval Office not long before Nixon was forced to resign in order to give the president a badly needed reality check about the looming threat of impeachment. He found Nixon relaxed and cheerful, still convinced that he somehow would be able to make this whole mess just go away. Republican strategist Mary Matalin acknowledges that Nixon’s actions seem to suggest a man who was simply losing his grip on reality, what interviewer David Frost later would call “his dislocated relationship with truth.”
It was Redford, who watched the Watergate hearings addictively during breaks in filming The Great Gatsby, who first saw the movie potential in the story even as Woodward and Bernstein’s investigation was in progress. Studios at first were skeptical; after all, how compelling could a film about two journalists writing really be? Redford, however, instinctively recognized that, at its heart, All the President’s Men would be an edge-of-the-seat thriller.
“All the President’s Men was a very violent movie,” he says. “People were out to kill each other, and the weapons were telephones, typewriters and pens.”
To convey how joined at the hip Woodward and Bernstein became during their lengthy investigation, Redford and Dustin Hoffman, who played Bernstein, memorized the dialogue of both their characters for their scenes together, so they could appear spontaneously to finish each other’s sentences. The two actors’ warm recollections of working together on the film are among the highlights of this documentary.
All the President’s Men Revisited also contains a segment speculating on how the Watergate story would unfold today in a news world driven by Twitter and other social media, as well as bloggers with no professional training. That verdict, not surprisingly, is mixed: The story probably would break faster, but it would be hard for any journalist today to afford the luxury of extensive research and investigation to build a story as painstakingly as Woodward and Bernstein did.
When Discovery Channel scheduled this special, they had no way of knowing it would air just a few days after last week’s tragic events at the Boston Marathon and the ensuing farce of major news organizations falling all over themselves in a frenzy to be the first to report any updates, even if that information turned out to be wrong. Forty years ago, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein helped protect the republic from a man whom some in the special call “the Imperial President,” and they did it by taking every pain to ferret out the truth. Looking at the news profession today, it’s sobering to be reminded that it’s no longer a precision motor vehicle but a clown car with the wheels coming off.