The title of Robert Redford’s new documentary, which aired on the Discovery Channel last night, is All the President’s Men Revisited. At times, it seems more like All the President’s Men Repeated. Though created to coincide with the 40th anniversary of Watergate, the first half of the film contains little that could not be found in Alan J. Pakula’s 1976 political thriller starring Redford and Dustin Hoffman. You know the story: A pair of scrappy young reporters named Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein stick to their guns when nobody else will, and their reporting helps to bring down a president.
This is, to be sure, a terrific story. No matter how many times you’ve heard it before, there is something gripping about watching Nixon’s slow, painful descent into national disgrace. Redford’s film hits all the highlights: Nixon’s press secretary Ron Ziegler dismissing the original break-in as a “third-rate burglary”; Woodward and Bernstein scrambling to “follow the money” all the way to the White House; Nixon aide Alexander Butterfield admitting to Congress that his boss maintained a voice-activated taping system; Nixon’s restrained farewell address to the nation, then his devastating, heartfelt goodbye to the White House staff.
As far as it goes, the film is a reasonably adequate primer on Watergate mythology, and it’s certainly fun to watch. But it is also a missed opportunity for historical reflection – and one that, given the age of most Watergate participants, is unlikely to come around again. Forty years out, we know most of the basic facts about Watergate. The real challenge is figuring out what they all meant.
The film begins with footage of Nixon mugging for cameramen (awkwardly, as always) just before his August 1974 resignation speech. Redford then cuts back to June 1972, when the neophyte reporter Woodward received an assignment involving some sort of botched break-in at DNC headquarters. There is no hint of the controversies that have dogged Woodward in recent years, such as the accusation that his reporting (then and now) relies too heavily on anonymous inside sources. Redford sticks to the script first introduced in Woodward and Bernstein’s 1974 book All the President’s Men, then repeated in the 1976 film, laying out how the “good guys” in the media got the bad guy in the White House.