Hank Stuever The Washington Post
Around here, the offer of watching a two-hour documentary about how Washington Post 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.
Yet here I sit, thoroughly absorbed by executive producer and narrator Robert Redford’s “All the President’s Men Revisited,” a fresh and even stirring reminiscence airing on Sunday on Discovery.
Redford and his crew, including director Peter Schnall, stylishly manage what countless others struggle to do: cut through the recollections of the major players like Woodward, Bernstein, their boss Ben Bradlee, Nixon White House counsel John Dean, and utilize their well-trod anecdotes in a way that seems new.
Because let’s face it: Watergate is fading before our eyes. Richard Nixon himself is nearly 20 years gone.
And while The Post legends and ex-White House staffers 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.
It’s smart of Redford and company to acknowledge 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.
Those who lived through it will find what they’re looking for, whether it’s a renewed sense of apoplexy or even just bemusement. Those who came along after won’t feel that familiar shame of being treated like a kid.
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?
“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.”
Now Redford and his crew return with Woodward, Bernstein and Bradlee to the newsroom on the fifth floor of that brown, Brutalist property on 15th Street that is currently for sale.
Rather than revel in newspaperdom’s former glories, “All the President’s Men Revisited” asks a good question: If a president’s re-election 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.
“The tedium, the hard work” that Redford admired back in the ’70s are what remain. As then, the skill is in the sifting, the verifying.
“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 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.”
“All the President’s Men Revisited” airs from 8 to 10 p.m. Sunday on Discovery.