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Movie review: 'All the President's Men Revisited'

All the President's Men Revisited

7 p.m. Sunday

Discovery Channel

Posted 8:41am on Friday, Apr. 19, 2013

There's a moment preserved in the Nixon White House tapes in which H.R. Haldeman, the president's chief of staff, marginalizes any fallout that will come from news of the Watergate break-in.

As if challenging fate, he assures Nixon that the administration won't be touched by scandal.

No one in his right mind would connect Watergate to the White House, Haldeman suggests, because any conspiracy theory linking the two is just too far-fetched to be believed.

At most, the president's man concludes, the circumstances of the break-in will make a funny movie.

Such hubris deserves a colossal takedown.

A movie was made, of course, but All the President's Men is not a comedy.

It's one of the great cinematic thrillers of all time, chronicling the true story of two Washington Post reporters who kept pulling at the threads of a criminal/political conspiracy until the 37th president of the United States resigned from office in disgrace.

The two stories -- the unraveling of a presidency and the making of a movie classic -- get equal play in All the President's Men Revisited, a Discovery Channel documentary that premieres at 7 p.m. Sunday.

The driving force behind the documentary is Robert Redford.

That's fitting, because Redford not only starred as Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Bob Woodward (alongside Dustin Hoffman as reporter Carl Bernstein), but as a producer he was a key figure in getting the 1976 movie made.

As Redford says in the documentary, "I thought the part [that Woodward and Bernstein] played in exposing the scandal would make a movie -- maybe even a good movie."

But when he approached the reporters to discuss the idea of bringing the story of their investigation to the big screen, their initial reaction was "chilly."

In the doc, Bernstein recalls saying, "We're busy. We gotta do this story."

But like Woodward and Bernstein on the scent of a lead, Redford wasn't one to give up easily. And four decades later, all of the key players (Woodward, Bernstein, Redford, Hoffman and Post editor Ben Bradlee) seem to be pleased that they collaborated on a film that's so embedded in our collective consciousness.

The only opposing viewpoint comes from Nixon speechwriter-turned-actor Ben Stein. He's in the documentary tearfully insisting the president was "a saint" and that the great man was railroaded.

All the President's Men Revisited is often wonderful filmmaking, even though it never actually breaks new ground. All of the story threads here have been told before.

But for viewers who are uninitiated with the details (and there could be many newcomers to the Watergate story, given that a large segment of our population now wasn't alive during this chapter in our history), the doc is quite thorough and easy to follow.

One of the best segments in Revisited involves the identity of Woodward's "deep cover" source, the man who was known only as Deep Throat for 30 years.

The media speculated for years about who Deep Throat was, occasionally even guessing correctly that it was FBI official Mark Felt, while Woodward and Bernstein kept their lips zipped until Felt came forward in 2005. The doc even has footage of Felt on a TV news program slyly denying that he was the guy.

In fact, it's when Revisited digs out archival footage that it really soars.

The footage of Nixon moments before he goes on national TV to announce his resignation Aug. 8, 1974, is particularly memorable. It shows a tormented man trying desperately to come off as breezy and collegial as he awkwardly jokes with members of the camera crew. As you can imagine, he fails miserably.

Mind you, the Discovery documentary isn't without flaws.

Many of the enlightening on-camera interviews are with key participants in the story: John Dean, former general counsel to President Nixon; Hugh Sloan, former treasurer of the Committee to Re-elect the President; Alexander Butterfield, former deputy assistant to Nixon; Watergate prosecutor Jill Wine-Banks; and J. Fred Thompson, minority counsel to Senate Watergate committee.

But that's watered down by the practice of weaving in "talking head" sequences with people like MSNBC host Rachel Maddow and Daily Show comedian Jon Stewart, who add only generic commentary.

And then there's the pesky issue of what to do with Redford himself. Granted, he's an important part of the story, at least on the moviemaking side. But as the narrator and also an on-camera interview subject, he is ultimately an inflated presence in the overall story.

Maybe it's because Redford is one of the executive producers involved in making the doc. After all, what was director Peter Schnall supposed to do when the boss wanted more face time?

But that's the worst that can be said, that the filmmakers went overboard stroking the ego of the movie star in charge. Once you get past that, Revisited is two hours of fun and informative filmmaking.

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