“All the President’s Men,” the classic 1976 film about Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s unraveling of Watergate, opens with hammering typewriter keystrokes that sound like gunshots.
Thirty years later, those shots — forged by relentless digging by two unlikely Washington Post reporters — still reverberate.
Today, when scandals over inaccuracy and allegations of softness plague the media, “All the President’s Men” is frequently referenced as a beacon of a bygone era when journalists were seen as heroes.
Woodward and Bernstein, in real life and as played, respectively, by Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, were sharp-witted reporting sleuths, pursuing and exposing one of history’s biggest governmental cover-ups.
“It was really a thriller. There was danger out there,” says Redford. “The film was using the typewriter and the telephone and pencil on paper as weapons.”
“All the President’s Men” remains one of the touchstones in Redford’s career, which also includes other socially conscious films like “The Candidate” and “Three Days of the Condor.”
Three decades after it was made, the movie arrives Tuesday in a two-disc special edition DVD. It includes a commentary from Redford and a featurette on the recent revelation of the identity of Woodward’s secret informant, Deep Throat: former FBI agent W. Mark Felt.
‘Accuracy was the big, big objective’For the 69-year-old Redford, it’s an unusual opportunity to look back on a film he remains proud of. Redford, who co-produced, was largely responsible for the movie getting made.
He spent four years on “President’s Men,” and first approached Woodward and Bernstein while they were still working on their book by the same name. It was even Redford’s idea to tell the story from the journalists’ perspective — which the reporters quickly adopted, refashioning their book to focus more on their experience.
“Nixon had already resigned and the held opinion [in Hollywood] was ‘No one cares. No one wants to hear about this,”’ Redford says. “And I said, ‘No, it’s not about Nixon. It’s about something else. It’s about investigative journalism and hard work.”’
Soon, director Alan Pakula (“The Parallax View”) and Hoffman signed on, as did Jason Robards, who won an Oscar for his legendary, “Woodstein!”-shouting performance as Post editor-in-chief Ben Bradlee.
Redford and Hoffman spent weeks researching their roles, hanging out with Post reporters at work. Extreme lengths were taken for realism, including building a replica of the paper’s newsroom — and even littering it with real Post paper trash.
“Accuracy was the big, big objective in making the film,” Redford says. “We had to be accurate, otherwise we would fall under that perception that Hollywood was messing around with a very vital event.”
Redford and Hoffman learned each other’s lines in many scenes so that their tag-team interviews would be seamless. Their interplay is still remarkable, like when Bernstein does a double-take after Woodward mentions that he’s a Republican.
While the reporters’ book — which the screenplay was based on — covered in great detail most of the interviews with sources, one was deliberately kept vague: Deep Throat. Though there was no personal description, Redford and company knew they didn’t want to portray him as a “mustache-twirling villain.”
Hal Holbrook, who plays the informant, was essentially the face of Deep Throat for 29 years. His dark, smokey figure in a trenchcoat urging Woodward to “follow the money” in a car garage basement will likely remain the enduring image of Felt, too.
Still relevant todayMore important than the unmasking of Deep Throat, Redford says, are the similarities of Nixon’s cover-up to the secretive nature of the current Bush administration.
Watergate, he says, “is happening everyday. It’s pretty transparent; it’s not something you have to reach for or exaggerate. You can go right down the list ... of things like Watergate happening almost on a regular basis with this particular administration.”
Today’s instant news coverage and the wealth of information, he says, prevent a scandal like Watergate from keeping the spotlight.
“I’m not sure you can have an event like that anymore,” Redford says. “When we made the film, as you can see, we had dial phones, there was no Internet, there was no cable, there was no computerization of our culture. And so one event like this — one scandal — could command that kind of attention.”
Redford, who recently finished shepherding another year of his Sundance Film Festival, is still busy. He’s currently involved in several movies in development: “Aloft,” about the tracking of a peregrine falcon; an adaptation of Bill Bryson’s “A Walk in the Woods”; and a film about the relationship of Jackie Robinson and Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey.
He’s also connected with a script near completion adapted from Neil Gordon’s novel about ‘60s radicals who lived underground for decades to elude police, only to realize in the ‘90s that the principles they had fought for were no longer relevant.
The theme of that project sounds similar to what Redford says is his overriding feeling looking back on “All the President’s Men”:
“Boy, things have changed.”