PHILADELPHIA — Robert Redford wasn’t exactly itching to return to Watergate.
When the Discovery Channel approached the man who’d played Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward in “All the President’s Men” about doing a film to commemorate the scandal’s sort-of anniversary — it’s been almost 41 years since the break-in and not quite 39 since Richard Nixon’s resignation — “my first reaction was, ‘No, leave it alone. That’s what it was then. You know, times move on,’” the actor/ director said in a phone interview last week.
But Discovery was persistent. “And then I thought about it, and I said, ‘No, wait a minute. It’s far enough back now that it’s a piece of American history, and maybe if you revisit that, there might be something to (show) the younger, or newer, generation, who may not even know about it,” said the 76-year-old actor and director, whose latest movie, “The Company You Keep,” is in theaters now.
Chances are, he’s right. Because though “gate” has been attached to dozens of more forgettable scandals, from “Nannygate” to “Nipplegate,” one thing that comes through in Discovery’s “All the President’s Men Revisited” is that the big daddy of them all — named after the building where the break-in to Democratic headquarters occurred — took place in a very different Washington, D.C.
And a very long time ago.
So long ago, in fact, that Redford in the film recalls watching the 1973 Watergate hearings in the Senate during breaks on the set of “The Great Gatsby.” (Leonardo DiCaprio, who’s about to make his own debut as Jay Gatsby, wouldn’t be born until the following year.)
MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, who, along with “Daily Show” host Jon Stewart, helps lower the median age of the talking heads in “Revisited,” was a newborn when the Senate hearings convened and speaks about how her mother basically fed her and watched Watergate.
Redford’s interest in the scandal, though, predated U.S. Sen. Howard Baker’s famous question, “What did the president know and when did he know it?”
“When I got involved in the story, it was only about two weeks after the actual break-in,” Redford said. “A lot of people don’t know that. … I was already focused on that issue because it looked like a story that went away real quick.” He thought that there was more to it, “and therefore when the two names (of Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward) started to appear, I was already focused (on whether) this thing was going to completely go away.
“You knew, your gut told you, that there was something more … and so I started to focus on these two guys all through that summer (of 1972), and then when it exploded into a major deal, I thought, ‘Well, this would be an interesting little black-and-white film that I could produce with two unknown actors.’ And to show what hard work was, to show what journalism was really like … whatever the outcome. I didn’t know where it was going to go. There were no hearings, there was no resignation, nothing like that. That was in the future. I just wanted to tell this little story.”
Woodward and Bernstein, caught up in a little story of their own, didn’t make it easy.
It “took a while, because they never returned my call,” Redford said. “Woodward thought it was a setup, they knew they were under surveillance. And he apologized later, ‘Well, I didn’t think you were you.’
“I said, ‘Gee, that feels good. I think a lot of people don’t think I’m me. But, anyway, here I am. Can we talk?’ So once we talked, we agreed that I could make this film. But they said, ‘Look, we have to write a book on this. So you can’t do anything till we’re finished with the book.’ So I had to wait for nine months.”
In the end, it would take four years to bring “All the President’s Men” to the screen — in color — with not-exactly-unknowns Redford and Dustin Hoffman playing Woodward and Bernstein.
“Carl was so colorful and, you know, Dustin was maybe going to have an easier time of it because … there were all these things he could play with,” Redford said of Bernstein, who’d go on to be immortalized again — pseudonymously — in ex-wife Nora Ephron’s book and film “Heartburn.”
“You could almost see that coming at the time,” Redford said, laughing.
But while Bernstein was clearly a character, Redford couldn’t get a handle on Woodward.
“I said, ‘Bob, you come off as kind of dull.’ And he said, ‘Well, that’s how I am.’
“And I said, ‘Oh, come on.’
“And he said, ‘No, no. I’m really not that interesting.’
“And I said, ‘Bob! I’ve got to play you. I’ve got to find something.’ And we talked and talked and he kept trying to put it off by saying, ‘No, Carl’s the more interesting one.’
“And I said, ‘Well, this has to be equal. I have to find something in you.’ And slowly but surely, I found what it was in Woodward, and that was his doggedness, his focus,” Redford said.
“He told me a story that was really wonderful,” about taking a two-day test at Yale for which he hadn’t studied.
The first day, Woodward “sort of winged it” and was sure he’d done poorly. So before the second day, he studied, and felt he’d “sailed through,” Redford said, only to discover, when the results came back, that the results were the opposite of what he’d thought.
“I realized at that time that I didn’t know what good work was, and that I was just going to have to work harder and harder and harder,” he told Redford.
“I thought that was really an interesting story that kind of helped me find him as a character to play so that you would see his doggedness, his straightforwardness,” Redford said. “But that, underneath that, was a guy who was going to go for the jugular.”
“What made (‘All the President’s Men’) dynamic for me, what made it really dramatic, was these two guys were so different, yet they had to work together,” Redford said.
“I wanted the film to show how they started with their differences, how they were at odds with each other, but slowly, with the guidance of (Post executive editor) Ben Bradlee, they came together as one. And that, to me, was very exciting,” he said.
“All the President’s Men Revisited” also shows a different kind of teamwork, of a kind viewers who’ve come of age since Watergate might not recognize.
“You see Washington at a time when both sides of the aisle worked together to get to the truth in those (hearings),” Reford said. “You compare that to today and the partisanship that exists today and the kind of toxic atmosphere around the Beltway, and you can say, ‘Oh, I guess that couldn’t happen today.’ And when it happened then, you took it for granted.”