Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Robert Redford and All the President's Men

I spent last Saturday evening with Robert Redford...and about 1000 other people who came to the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) to hear him talk about his acclaimed 1976 movie "All the President's Men" and to pay tribute to his career as a film actor, director, and producer. He produced "All the President's Men", while also starring in it. Joining him were the guys who broke the story of Watergate and wrote the book on which the movie is based. Of course, we're talking about Bob Woodward (played by Redford in the movie) and Carl Bernstein (played by Dustin Hoffman, who wasn't able to appear at BAM). They were all interviewed by Brian Lehrer, a prominent New York City radio talk show host.

As you can imagine, it was quite a night. The movie is outstanding and should be seen regularly, not just because it's a fine piece of American cinema, but also because it offers one of the best and most honest portrayals that has ever been put on screen of the grunt work that constitutes about 90% of all investigative journalism. Nobody gets shot in this movie or participates in a car chase or even falls in love. It is simply a story about two relentless, dedicated reporters who smell a story from the very beginning and go after it without let-up, when five middle-aged burglars in business suits are caught breaking into the Democratic headquarters on June 17, 1972. The questions these dogged reporters ask and the leads they follow propel them inexorably toward the uncovering of the most corrupt presidential administration in American history.

Of course, what made this such a special event was the presence of Redford and the two journalists. All were in fine form. Redford, whom I think of as low key and almost shy, spoke energetically and at length about the film and how it was made. And the really interesting inside story that came out of this conversation was this: It was Redford's idea, as early as late 1972, to explore on film the partnership of Woodward and Bernstein and how they broke the Watergate story. This was long before even Woodward and Bernstein themselves envisioned a book. Equally intriguing, and now, of course, quite amusing, is the fact that W and B avoided Redford and did not return his phone calls when he first tried to contact them. Why? Partly because they were so consumed by their work - which involved writing over 200 articles during the first year of Watergate - they simply didn't have time to respond. And partly because they were suspicious of this most magisterial of movie actors. What could he possibly want from them? Did he want to put them in a movie? Was he looking for inside information? Only much later, while the book was being written and the Watergate controversy was running its course, did W and B finally respond to Redford and begin to cooperate with him to make the film. TO BE CONTINUED.

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