Cinema: Watergate on Film

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Of course it is impossible to have a couple of $200-a-week legmen impersonated by million-dollar movie stars, their images blown up to gigantic proportions on the nation's screens, without a certain amount of inevitable idealization taking place, both of the models and their trade. But, as Ben Bradlee has observed, "the irony of Watergate is that Richard Nixon made us all famous—the people he most despised. He made us mini-household words, and in the case of Woodward and Bernstein, real folk heroes." (Well, sort of.) The moviemakers were particularly on guard against showing the "Woodstein team," as they came to be known in Washington, as anything other than what they were—hungry reporters desperately eager for a break. But the film will augment what they have since become: very rich reporters in the anomalous and, for most newsmen, disquieting position of being more famous than many of their sources.

Its thoughtful respect for reality is the reason why the film, which opens in 200 theaters on April 7, qualifies as the latest in a long line of pictures they said could never be made—or at least made correctly—but which somehow came out all right in the end. The movie is very nearly a dramatized documentary. It covers only about three-fifths of the book, ending with Nixon's 1972 inauguration. It is emphatically not The Front Page; there is no shouting about stopping the presses, no pulling phones out of walls. The word scoop is not used once, and that perhaps best suggests the film's restraint.

The plot is necessarily familiar. Routinely assigned to a minor crime story, a break-in at the Democratic National Committee Headquarters in the Watergate complex one night in June 1972, Woodward and Bernstein soon find they have landed the assignment of the century. Cross-checking lists of G.O.P. contributors, rosters of election staffers, knocking on doors, endlessly working the phones, getting sepulchral guidance from Woodward's source "Deep Throat" or open aid from a repentant official like Hugh Sloan Jr., the pair begin to run the chain of criminal responsibility for Watergate higher and higher into the Nixon organization. The film stops well before the link to Nixon himself is established, leaving an odd sense of unfinished history. Unlike the book, the movie gives the impression that in all journalism only the Post's investigative reporters were working to expose Watergate. It also runs the risk of taking the role of the press, while crucial, almost too seriously.

Redford saw in Watergate the possibilities of a film while Woodward and Bernstein were still churning out daily stories. He introduced himself to the pair and got to know them before they were well into their book; Woodward credits him with influencing their work. Redford chose the basic elements that compose the movie package and is therefore responsible not only for most of the problems the movie encountered in production, but for the solutions that had to be devised for them; it is Redford's sensibility—not deep, but interestingly complex in its blend of coolness and caring—that is clearly reflected in the finished film.

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