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All the President's Men Revisited: TV Review

The Bottom Line

Robert Redford re-examines one of his most famous films and the history that inspired it in this pointed doc.

Airdate

Sunday, April 21, 8 pm, Discovery Channel.

Narrator

Robert Redford

Director-producer-director of photography

Peter Schnall.

The Robert Redford-narrated Discovery doc examines the Watergate scandal that led to the first-ever resignation of an American President.

During the last 50 years, the country has been battered by assassinations, mass shootings, and terrorist attacks.  Almost as traumatic as these acts of violence was the Watergate scandal that led to the first resignation of an elected American president.  That period of turmoil is deftly captured in the Discovery Channel documentary, All the President’s Men Revisited, which airs on Sunday night.

The title suggests that this will be a doc about the making of the acclaimed 1976 film, and indeed there is footage from All the President’s Men in this new film narrated and executive produced by the movie’s co-star, Robert Redford.  But the new picture concentrates on retelling the original Watergate story in a swift, breezy style.  While little here will be new to viewers with memories of the original events, it is all rehashed lucidly and may well prove eye-opening to younger viewers (if any of them can be persuaded to watch such ancient history).

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The film begins with footage of President Richard Nixon’s resignation speech in 1974, reminding us what an unprecedented event this was. Then director Peter Schnall goes back to the beginning of the story, the Watergate break-in of 1972. Considering that Nixon’s victory in the 1972 election was the biggest landslide in modern history, it speaks to his paranoia (mentioned several times by observers interviewed in the film) that he felt the need to order a break-in of the office of his Democratic opponents. However, that crime might have remained a “third-rate burglary” if it were not for the persistence of Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, who pursued the story doggedly over the next couple of years.

Redford contacted Woodward and Bernstein soon after their first reports were published, with the idea of making a film, but that project was put on the back burner while Redford concentrated on other movies.  (He recalls watching the 1973 Watergate hearings while filming The Great Gatsby.)  Eventually Redford teamed up with Dustin Hoffman, screenwriter William Goldman, and director Alan J. Pakula to make the movie, which won three Oscars in 1976, including one for Jason Robards, who portrayed Post editor Ben Bradlee. Woodward, Bernstein, and Bradlee return to the Post newsroom for scenes in the documentary and comment on how quiet it seems now that typewriters have been replaced by computers.

Redford and Hoffman also reunite to reminisce about their work on the movie, but one wishes there were more details on how the film itself was engineered. Perhaps Redford feared this would make the documentary too much of an inside-Hollywood affair, but it could have benefited from more incisive reporting on the challenges of making a movie that studios considered hopelessly noncommercial.

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The material on Watergate, though not exactly virgin, still includes many vivid moments.  Excerpts from the White House tapes remain incendiary, with reminders of Nixon’s anti-Semitism as well as his self-pity. Interviews with Woodward and Bernstein, as well as reminiscences from several Watergate figures, are pithy and engrossing. And the film reminds us of how the chronicling of history has changed dramatically over the years.  As Woodward and Bernstein suggest, new media make it extremely unlikely that a story of this magnitude could ever again take two years to reach its conclusion. Another revealing point is the reminder that Nixon’s final fall came when the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the White House had to turn over the tapes to Congress. In today’s highly partisan Supreme Court, the idea of a unanimous ruling that would damage one political party at the expense of the other seems unthinkable. Such sharp observations make this trip down memory lane very much worth taking.

Airdate:  Sunday, April 21, 8 pm, Discovery Channel.

Narrator: Robert Redford

Director-producer-director of photography:  Peter Schnall.

Writers:  Chana Gazit, Patrick Prentice.

Executive producers:  Robert Redford, Andrew Lack, Laura Michalchyshyn.

Music:  Nathan Halpern.

Editors:  E. Donna Shepherd, Mark Fason.

89 minutes.