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Cinema: Watergate on Film

23 minute read

Most of the time, Washington Post Executive Editor Benjamin C. Bradlee is a lean, tough, profane newsman. He directed his paper’s contribution to exposing Watergate, the great political scandal, the constitutional crisis that brought down Richard Nixon. But just now Ben Bradlee is starstruck. He has seen All the President’s Men, a new $8.5 million film about Watergate, the Post and Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, the two young reporters whom Bradlee had guided and frequently defended.

“It took me a long time in the movie before I could even hear what anyone was saying,” he said breathlessly after seeing a prerelease screening. “The set was just stunning.” The main set is the vast, gleaming city room just outside Bradlee’s sleek, glass-walled office. Warner Bros, spent $450,000 to recreate it, right down to the wastebaskets, on their Burbank, Calif., lot; then they had real Washington Post trash shipped west to fill those baskets. The stars were pretty stunning too. Bradlee’s young charges were transformed into gorgeous Robert Redford and sexy Dustin Hoffman. Jason Robards, playing Bradlee, just about ran away with the movie. Robards played him larger-than-life, carrying the repute of his paper and the fate of the nation on his well-tailored shoulders with almost too much in the way of casual bravado; but then Bradlee plays himself that way sometimes. “I did just great!” cried Bradlee afterward. “I don’t know how to say it.”

Bradlee’s elation is understandable, and not just because very few people get to see glorifications of themselves by one of America’s finest actors. All the President’s Men had every prospect of failing big. Since work began on it three years ago, it has been, as its screenwriter of record, William Goldman, says, “the biggest gossip picture since The Godfather.” There was hazard, if not a touch of hubris, in turning a national trauma into a mere movie—and so quickly too. The film would be released before the nation’s emotions had dried into something like a sober historical perspective. Moreover, the driving force behind the project was not an intellectually favored film maker of international repute—a Bertolucci or a Costa-Gavras. Instead it was Redford, a performer whose impeccable box office credentials are based largely on the fact that he is so damnably adorable.

Skeptics pointed out the conventional wisdom: no American political film has made money since Mr. Smith Goes to Washington almost four decades ago. There must have been some temptation to use that appealing film as a model, turning Woodward and Bernstein into updated Jimmy Stewarts—naive, idealistic, full of puff about democratic ideals.

Of course it is impossible to have a couple of $200-a-week legmen impersonated by million-dollar movie stars, their images blown up to gigantic proportions on the nation’s screens, without a certain amount of inevitable idealization taking place, both of the models and their trade. But, as Ben Bradlee has observed, “the irony of Watergate is that Richard Nixon made us all famous—the people he most despised. He made us mini-household words, and in the case of Woodward and Bernstein, real folk heroes.” (Well, sort of.) The moviemakers were particularly on guard against showing the “Woodstein team,” as they came to be known in Washington, as anything other than what they were—hungry reporters desperately eager for a break. But the film will augment what they have since become: very rich reporters in the anomalous and, for most newsmen, disquieting position of being more famous than many of their sources.

Its thoughtful respect for reality is the reason why the film, which opens in 200 theaters on April 7, qualifies as the latest in a long line of pictures they said could never be made—or at least made correctly—but which somehow came out all right in the end. The movie is very nearly a dramatized documentary. It covers only about three-fifths of the book, ending with Nixon’s 1972 inauguration. It is emphatically not The Front Page; there is no shouting about stopping the presses, no pulling phones out of walls. The word scoop is not used once, and that perhaps best suggests the film’s restraint.

The plot is necessarily familiar. Routinely assigned to a minor crime story, a break-in at the Democratic National Committee Headquarters in the Watergate complex one night in June 1972, Woodward and Bernstein soon find they have landed the assignment of the century. Cross-checking lists of G.O.P. contributors, rosters of election staffers, knocking on doors, endlessly working the phones, getting sepulchral guidance from Woodward’s source “Deep Throat” or open aid from a repentant official like Hugh Sloan Jr., the pair begin to run the chain of criminal responsibility for Watergate higher and higher into the Nixon organization. The film stops well before the link to Nixon himself is established, leaving an odd sense of unfinished history. Unlike the book, the movie gives the impression that in all journalism only the Post’s investigative reporters were working to expose Watergate. It also runs the risk of taking the role of the press, while crucial, almost too seriously.

Redford saw in Watergate the possibilities of a film while Woodward and Bernstein were still churning out daily stories. He introduced himself to the pair and got to know them before they were well into their book; Woodward credits him with influencing their work. Redford chose the basic elements that compose the movie package and is therefore responsible not only for most of the problems the movie encountered in production, but for the solutions that had to be devised for them; it is Redford’s sensibility—not deep, but interestingly complex in its blend of coolness and caring—that is clearly reflected in the finished film.

Redford’s interest in Watergate began when he heard a group of reporters discussing the bungled breakin. Ironically they were covering the actor’s promo tour for The Candidate. They all thought Nixon had probably known about it and that no one—least of all their fellow newsmen—would ever pursue the matter far enough to confirm or deny their suspicions.

Redford was shocked: “I’ve always had a very low regard for cynicism; I think it is the beginning of dying.” He had a less philosophical reason for focusing on the burglary. Back home in Van Nuys, Calif., when Redford, then 13, had won a tennis tournament, Senator Richard Nixon had awarded him the trophy. Young Bob was not impressed: “I thought, what a nonperson!

This fake human!”

As the Watergate case slowly built, Redford noted two particularly interesting reporters among those plugging away at the story. When he read brief biographies of Woodward and Bernstein he was fascinated by the odd-couple quality of their pairing—a Wasp and a Jew, one cool and controlled, the other more voluble and volatile. Characteristically—he is a man much more interested in people than in ideas—”that was the first time I saw the potential film.” He adds: “I remember thinking, ‘This is very interesting, a study in opposing characters and how they work together.’ I’m really fascinated by how people do things.”

But it was when the Woodstein team appeared to be doing things wrong that Redford got in touch with them. The Post had claimed that H.R. Haldeman had been named in grand jury testimony as one of the controllers of the Watergate dirty-tricks fund. He had not been named before the grand jury, thus allowing the White House to cast doubt on the accuracy of everything Woodward and Bernstein had reported. “I wanted to see them when they had bottomed out,” says Redford. “People who take wild shots and miss interest me.”

The fact that Woodward and Bernstein interested him most when they looked most as if they were going to be losers is an expression of Redford’s truest—or at least oldest—self. Approaching 40, he may currently be the world’s ranking movie star. He, his wife Lola and their three children jet back and forth between their Fifth Avenue apartment and their retreat outside Provo, Utah, near the ski resort he owns and where he revels in his role as conservationist and spokesman for various good causes.

But it was not always that way. Los Angeles-born and middle-class bred, Redford was a college dropout and, for a time, a quick takeoff artist, bombing the interstates and bumming his way around Europe, vaguely thinking of becoming an artist. Some of his friends were convinced that he would never find himself, would wind up a loser, and Redford remains fascinated by the type. Since Woodward and Bernstein could possibly be seen as anti-Establishment goads, that also probably drew him to them. In short, he may have become a Goliath in his trade, but his heart belongs to the Davids.

Redford bought the movie rights for $450,000. He began work by affixing himself to the Post city room, particularly to Woodward and Bernstein. “I fell in love with the Post,” he says. “I felt these people really did lead a different life. I saw all the leads that Bob and Carl couldn’t go with. It was such fat, juicy stuff.” He won the confidence of Bradlee and most of the paper’s other executives, with the exception of Publisher Katharine Graham, who remained wary of the whole project.

To write the script he hired William Goldman, a longtime crony and writer of the film that made Redford a superstar, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. His work was apparently both very good and very bad. He licked the narration problems posed by the book, carving a straight, simple dramatic line. But he also put heavy emphasis on crude news room humor. Bernstein was quoted as saying that the script read like a Henny Youngman jokebook. Another reporter retitled it Butch and Sundance Bring Down the Government, while Bradlee recalls it as “a caricature of us—tough-guy reporters.”

The Post nearly backed out of the project then, and Bradlee was blunt with Redford. “Just remember, pal,” he said, “that you go off and ride a horse or jump in the sack with some good-looking woman in your next film—but I am forever an asshole.” Redford was impressed: “I’ve met few people who were as conscious of their position—and how to keep it.” He did his best to make amends with the Post people. “Redford kept talking about trust,” Bradlee recalls. “He kept saying, ‘You’ve got to trust us.’ We didn’t understand that. We were thinking, ‘Why the hell should we trust Robert Redford? Why should we turn our reputations over to him?’ ”

Redford was also disappointed by the script. It lacked details and substance on the matter that had come to interest him most—the newsgathering process. At this point, Bernstein took a crack at rewriting the script, but that, too, proved a mistake. Bernstein apparently built up his image as the more swinging member of the Woodstein team. “Carl,” Redford told him, “Errol Flynn is dead.” Thereafter, as Bernstein puts it, “Redford got on the script in a concentrated way.” He squeezed a couple more revisions out of the miffed Goldman, who was eager to get on with adapting his Marathon Man novel for the screen. Yet another writer was brought in for a polish job, though the script remained a problem. A lot of what is on the screen now was finally improvised by the actors and Director Alan Pakula on the set—with Redford calling Washington five or six times a day, according to colleagues, to check these changes for accuracy with “the boys.”

Goldman’s script did serve one important function. It was good enough to use as a recruiting device for Dustin Hoffman, whom Redford wanted to play Bernstein. Says Hoffman: “I was amazed. Goldman had cracked the narrative problem. I had doubts until then that you could make a movie out of the book.” He saw that problems remained, especially in the characterizations. But he signed on, provided that he could share director approval with Redford.

The man they settled on was Alan Pakula, who had just come off another study in American political paranoia. The Parallax View, but whose work on Klute was what had really impressed both actors. They felt he had done an excellent job in building by visual means menace and tension into a script that had lacked those qualities. “If our project was to succeed, we’d need the same kind of tension,” Hoffman remembers thinking. He adds: “Bob liked him because he felt he wouldn’t jump on a liberal bandwagon. Redford saw the film as a detective story, not as a polemic against Nixon.”

All three now returned to the Post for further observation of its people and its workings. The hassle over the first-draft script had worked a subtle change in the atmosphere; there was a new wariness in the relationship between the moviemakers and the newspapermen. Hoffman was particularly distressed. At one point he marched on Redford, crying, “Screw it. Let’s fictionalize it. I just hate the attitudes around here. Everybody will know what paper we’re really representing. What’s the difference?” Redford, too, was unhappy. “The ambivalence of the Post drove me nuts,” he recalls. He also feels that something valuable emerged from this time of tension, a restoration of his objectivity. He now says, “I felt it was important to fall out of love with the Post too.”

Much as he respected Hoffman (“One of the joys of the movie was working with Dustin; he has one of the most wonderful acting minds I’ve ever worked with”), he disagreed with him about the advisability of fictionalizing the film. He and Pakula were convinced that documentary-like realism was essential to the picture, that they had to develop what Pakula calls “an immediacy, a sense of being there,” that would replace conventional melodrama as a means of sustaining interest. He also felt this attention to workaday detail would protect against the picture’s “overwhelming potential for pretentiousness.”

This shared obsession is probably responsible for sustaining the relationship between Redford and Pakula through the strains that were to develop after shooting began. Pakula is a painstaking director, capable of talking out a scene for hours before putting it in front of the camera. Then his habit is to insist on endless retakes, covering every nuance his actors develop as they rework a scene, giving himself every imaginable option once he takes the film into the cutting room. Redford is an actor who does not find a character through ratiocination or conversation, but rather by getting as quickly as possible into action and seeing where his instincts lead him. He also fears the loss of spontaneity that comes with excessive repetition. “I kept thinking, “Let’s get it over with,’ ” Redford remembers.

Then, too, he was the senior officer present on the set, the man charged with keeping the picture on schedule and on budget. “Part of me had to be the responsible producer and part of me wanted to be creatively indulgent as an actor.

Those parts were always at war.” It was a war, as it turned out, which he could not win on either front. Pakula could not be forced to speed his pace, perhaps in part because Hoffman liked talk and retakes too, and inevitably the picture fell behind. In the end it was 35 days over schedule and $3.5 million over budget.

The principals—Robards, Jack Warden, who played Metro-editor Harry Rosenfeld, and Martin Balsam, who played Managing Editor Howard Simons—had to be present on the set every day because Pakula had decided to shoot the city room sequences in “deep focus.” This meant that even when these players did not have any lines, they were visible in the background of most scenes. They coped as cheerfully as they could with the situation. Robards would often simply retire to “his”—that is, Bradlee’s—office and read the books that had presumably helped shape the character of the man he was playing (needless to say, Bradlee’s office library had been duplicated on the set). Sometimes he would write letters to his children on Post stationery, with which his lair was also plentifully supplied. A convivial man, Robards also passed time swapping jokes with Balsam and Warden, or speculating on the real identity of Deep Throat. At one point they all concluded that he was doubtless a she—possibly Rose Mary Woods or a fed-up Pat Nixon.

The question is, after all the pain and bad feelings, was it worth it? The answer is yes, and one reason for that answer is Redford. If he was never completely satisfied with any of his coworkers’ contributions, he turned out to be a shrewd editor of their work, choosing from their offerings that which fitted—and expanded—his original conception of the film. He realized, for example, that Goldman was not entirely wrong when he perceived at the outset that the film required a leavening note of newspaper humor and camaraderie. The journalistic world is one where power asserts itself in human terms—with a joke or an epithet. It is also one where the troops can express their mildly mutinous feelings in a similarly easy manner. It seems to invite the visual treatment Pakula employed in the newsroom sequences, which is bright, open, healthy. That, in turn, makes even more vivid the sequences in which Pakula exercises his special gift for suggesting menace through indirect visual statement. When the reporters leave their oasis of light to pursue their investigations, Washington—that city of broad avenues and vistas—becomes, as Pakula visualizes it, a dark and scary place. Its great public buildings loom up suddenly and oppressively out of the shadows, dominating, seeming to threaten the tiny figures of the ever-hustling newsmen. When, finally, they begin to penetrate the homes of potential informants, the material the reporters seek comes haltingly, fearfully, from people who, even in familiar surroundings, seek to shelter themselves in dimness. It is only when their sources begin to open up, to find release in confession, that they begin to be seen in full and, literally, sympathetic light. In these moments one knows that Redford has given his director free rein, confident that good would come of it.

Even the painstaking habits that annoyed Redford on the set must seem worthwhile now. The director has patiently sought out the inner dynamics of the film’s many short scenes involving characters who have no lasting relationship with Woodward and Bernstein or anyone else in the film. His ability to find drama in the way a cup of coffee is handled, in the briefest play of emotions across the troubled face of a reluctant informer, is remarkable and invaluable in preventing the film from being no more than a historical record, a documentary in the dullest sense of the term. In fact, the entire Woodward-Bernstein relationship is built up not in the script (where Redford ordered it played down in favor of showing their procedures) but through fleeting exchanges of glances and gestures caught, as it were, out of the corner of an alert camera’s eye. Even so, the failure to explore their relationship with more fully dramatized incidents, good sharp verbal exchanges, is a major flaw, giving the picture a certain coldness at its center.

In compensation, Pakula has developed a series of incisive actors’ moments that to a degree belie Hoffman’s contention that this is not “an actor’s film.” Hal Holbrook is brilliant as Deep Throat, giving him an arrogance and condescension that make that famous nonperson’s behavior explicable. So is Jane Alexander as the edgy mouse of a bookkeeper whom Bernstein persuades to talk about the slush fund at the Committee for the Re-Election of the President. Penny Fuller and Lindsay Anne Grouse appear as newspaperwomen who help out with leads at key moments—the former dizzily, the latter with touching reluctance to betray a lost love.

Pakula is not unwilling to take credit. He observes that he had “constant hassles with actors who were awed by the subject of the film and thought in an ideological frenzy they had to give it all they had. I’ve never seen so many experienced professionals overacting in my life.” Redford is probably entitled to credit for submerging his actor’s ego beneath his producer’s needs and playing, as does Dustin Hoffman, as part of an ensemble.

In his own way, Hoffman is just as essential to the film as Redford; partly because he plays the more interesting character, his performance may well be more vividly remembered. At 38, Hoffman is the best character lead in the business; it seems impossible to imagine anyone else as Carl Bernstein. On the set Hoffman is a tough, uncompromising craftsman. Pakula’s crablike approach to film making, which so unnerved Redford, was just fine with Hoffman, who thrives on improvisation. “I fight like hell with my directors,” he says, “but this was a relatively pleasant experience.”

As a child in Los Angeles, Hoffman studied to be a concert pianist but dropped the idea fast when he discovered the fun of acting classes. It is nearly a decade since he became an overnight star in The Graduate; he now gets $750,000 a picture. He and his wife, Ballet Dancer Anne Byrne, live in New York City. Says he: “If you stay in Beverly Hills too long you become a Mercedes.” He is extravagantly proud of his wife, who stopped dancing to have two children, but who is now “making a comeback second only to Muhammad Ali.” He concludes, “She is the toughest of the tough of the tough.”

Bradlee, of course, was right in asking why journalists should entrust their reputations to actors: Hoffman and Redford are in their own world, with their wives, children, horses, other movies, other causes. The Post and its people stay behind in the daily world of newspapering. What happens to a couple of reporters when they become celebrities?

What happens to a newspaper when it becomes a legend? In the hothouse atmosphere of Washington, there are gusts of jealousy and predictions of trouble: too much self-satisfaction, it is muttered of the Post, too much success. Newsmen and newspapers, goes one rather convincing theory, should stay out of the limelight, should remain a little insecure and run scared to do their job well.

Trying to live up to its legend could well hurt the Post. But so far, it is still a

first-rate paper, though there is no doubt that it misses the excitement and the unifying cause of Watergate. As for Woodward and Bernstein, despite their new riches, they remain Post employees; their life-styles are a lot more comfortable but essentially unchanged from the days before their fame. Friends report no apparent danger that either is about to indulge in celebrity carryings-on. Indeed, they have spent the last year working at their trade, reporting the death throes of the Administration they were instrumental in bringing down. Their new book, The Final Days, to be published by Simon & Schuster (see box), is already an assured commercial success and, their agent believes, a cinch to set a new record for a paperback sale. They remain leaders of the Watergate industry they helped to found with their revelations. They are competing now with other reportage and memoirs, even novels (John Ehrlichman is about to publish one) by the people they helped to drive out of public office.

Meanwhile, All the President’s Men is being judged by some tough audiences. It has already succeeded with the once suspicious Post crowd. Says Woodward: “The film taught me something about my business—seeing how they treated it and how they cared for it. The movie’s not just pretty damned true, it is true. I just think, if reporters see it, they’ll say, ‘This is how we do it.’ ” Adds Bernstein: “They did a spectacular reporting job to do this movie. Good reporters get their sources to trust them, and that’s what they did with us.”

Last week Redford showed the movie to a few politicians and a group of Boston journalists who had served as sources during the preproduction phase. Mayor Kevin White proclaimed: “That film is going to have an effect on the election. That film is powerful.” Boston Globe Editor Tom Winship rose at an afterscreening dinner to toast Redford as “a fine reporter and a good street man.”

The praise is generous, perhaps too much so. All the President’s Men may be seen by many as an ego trip—the era’s leading movie personality discovering that the only subject big enough for him is the era’s most significant public event and latching on to it. Hoffman recently went to see the film version of James Whitmore’s one-man show Give ‘Em Hell, Harry and reports the audience cheered when Harry Truman stepped right up and called Richard Nixon “a lying son-of-a-bitch.” He argued on the set that All the President’s Men could have used one such uncool and cathartic moment, a moment when all the emotion it so carefully suppresses is allowed to burst through. Yet that moment’s absence should not mar what must be a triumphant moment for Redford. For the first time he has fully mobilized all the forces within him “to let the bear out,” as he once put it. That the end product so closely reflects his first vision of the film is a tribute to what a friend calls his “bulldog tenacity” in bending many wills to his own. “He supposedly has the world by the tail,” observes Hal Holbrook, “but most people who have the world by the tail don’t swing it quite so heavily or quite so publicly. I respect him for that, for taking that risk.” It seems probable that a large number of people who know him less well will come to feel the same way after they have seen All the President’s Men.

Perhaps the greatest risk involves the public, with its skeptical attitude toward the press and (in a different sense) toward Hollywood, both forces that shape American reality. Is the press, as seen through Watergate, by and large telling the truth about America? Is Hollywood telling the truth about the press? And do both deserve praise for it? Those are among the questions that Redford, perhaps not deliberately, raises with his remarkable movie. His own answer is obviously yes—and he is asking a huge audience to agree with him.

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