Adapting Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s bestseller about their investigation in the Watergate scandal, director Alan J. Pakula, screenwriter William Goldman and Robert Redford accomplished the near impossible. They made a genuinely gripping political thriller out of the day-to-day drudgery of the life of a newspaper reporter.
They did it without hyping up the story with a lot of false Hollywood devices or overly glamorizing its lead characters. It is this prosaic sense of everyday reality, this semi-documentary style that gives the film its tension. There is no point where you are comforted by the thought that it couldn’t happen this way. It could and it did. The film shows the two reporters often beating their heads against the wall. At many times their story teeters on the edge of failure and you realize just how close the perpetrators came to getting away with it.
At the time, Bob Woodward (Redford) was a relatively wet-behind-the-ears crime beat reporter for the Washington Post sent to recover a routine, if bizarre, break-in at the Democratic National Headquarters in the Watergate Office Building. Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) had been around for several years but his career was largely stuck in a rut. Woodward was a button-down Republican, careful and thorough, while Bernstein was an outspoken liberal, given to following his intuition and deductive leaps. The men were distinctly clashing personalities who, in the beginning, got on like a snake and mongoose.
Neither actor was originally considered for the roles, but Warner Brother’s wanted Redford to star in the film to make it more marketable. To keep the film from being unbalanced in favor of Woodward, Redford approached Hoffman at a Knicks game and offered him the role.
The rest of the cast is a solid ensemble of first-rate character actors, led by Jason Robards as Washington Post managing editor Ben Bradlee, Jack Warden as Harry M. Rosenfield and Martin Balsam as Howard Simons. Hal Holbrook gives real substance to the shadowy figure of Woodward’s source, “Deep Throat.” This is no small accomplishment, given that no one knew anything about the man at the time.
The stark cinematography by Gordon Willis also serves the story well, ratcheting up the sense of paranoia as the reporters get closer to the truth and capturing the flat over-lit look of George Jenkins and George Gaines’s painstaking recreation of the Washington Post newsroom on a Warner soundstage.
The film traces the story from the discovery of E. Howard Hunt’s phone number in the burglar’s possession to the slush fund operated by the Committee to Re-Elect the President (CREEP) to fund covert political sabotage and from there up the chain as Woodward and Bernstein struggle to link control of the fund the H. R. Haldeman. We follow them from one nugget of information to next, trying to get someone, anyone to go on the record.
This film is still shown to journalism students all over, but I wonder how many actually get it. How many miss the story of painstaking research and investigation, of rigorously confirming each fact, and how many just see the story of two reporters that found the one big story that made them rich and famous? The irony is that the Watergate story gave rise to the “gotcha” brand of journalism that we still have to live with three decades later, but the two men responsible for breaking that story weren’t that kind of journalists at all.
DVD Note: The new DVD edition of this movie is the first released since the revelation that former deputy directory of the FBI W. Mark Felt was the famous “Deep Throat.” Sadly, the extra feature on the DVD about Felt’s involvement is disappointingly light on information about him and is really more about the use of anonymous sources by journalists in general. The new documentary about the making of the film was well done, so the thin content of this one is a letdown.
There was a great documentary about the Watergate scandal on the Discovery channel about 12 years ago, around the 20th anniversary of Nixon’s resignation. Unfortunately, it’s not available on home video of any kind. You can, however, get the book on which it was based, by Fred Emery, which I can also highly recommend.