He was the driving force behind making the big-screen version of All the President's Men, but from the start Robert Redford did not plan to be in it. In fact, Redford thought another actor would play his part until Warner Bros. told him: "Either you star as Bob Woodward or the cameras won't roll at all."
See also: Robert Redford's 10 great roles
For once, the studio was right. The chemistry between Redford and Dustin Hoffman (as Woodward's Washington Post colleague Carl Bernstein) was the linchpin for arguably the finest newspaper drama ever made. Now, 37 years later, Redford, 76, figures heavily in two new films that cast a fascinating spotlight on how drastically journalism has changed since the Watergate era.
In The Company You Keep, a young reporter (Shia LaBeouf) digs for the truth about former members of the 1970s terrorist group the Weather Underground — and links it to a small-town lawyer, played by Redford.
All the President's Men Revisited, a Discovery Channel documentary produced by Redford and airing on April 21, combines scenes from the 1976 film with archival footage of Woodward and Bernstein as well as previously unseen footage of President Nixon in the Oval Office. Redford is also interviewed in the film. (Watch a trailer at the end of this page.)
Redford calls himself "a big supporter of journalism." Here he talks about his fascination with the Fourth Estate and shares a little gossip about All the President's Men.
Q: The Company You Keep is your ninth film as a director. What drew you to the project?
A: I'm fascinated by journalism. I put a keen eye, not a negative eye, on its role, particularly how it is changed by the times we're living in. The big moment for me was making All the President's Men. It was not about Watergate or President Nixon. I wanted to focus on something I thought not many people knew about: How do journalists get the story? The Company You Keep shows a journalist getting the story, too, but his motives are more ambiguous than Woodward and Bernstein's.
Q: Woodward and Bernstein were a study in contrasts.
A: That's what made the movie exciting and dramatic for me. One guy was a Jew, the other was a WASP. One was a Republican, the other a liberal. They didn't much like each other, but they had to work together. I developed the project over 3-1/2 years. I started it when few people were talking about Watergate. Later, I spent a lot of time with the two journalists. By that time they were working beautifully together.
Q: Were they surprised when you said you wanted to make a movie about them?
A: At first they refused to meet me. I found out later they thought they were being set up. They apologized and said, "We didn't think it was you." They knew they were under surveillance, but they didn't let up. What they did was totally heroic. It was journalism as a path to the truth. You don't see much of that today. I was so proud and so happy to make a film that celebrates how important journalism is and how it proved itself by hard work. Hard, truthful work by these two lowly journalists was able to undermine the top level of the U.S.: the president.
Next page: Redford on journalism and politics today. »
Q: Considering it was made in the era of audience-pleasers like Jaws and Rocky, did the film's success surprise you?
A: I don't think anybody expected Watergate to get as big as it did. The movie followed that trend. It got a lot of attention. Probably too much. People entered journalism school thinking, "Hey, maybe a movie could be made about us, too." What these two reporters did was a moment in time. Can that moment ever come back? I don't think so.
Q: Why couldn't it happen again?
A: Journalism has changed tremendously because of the democratization of information. Anybody can put something up on the Internet. It's harder and harder to find what the truth is. When you have barking dogs on TV that are so extremely to the right, lying right to your face and with such conviction, someone tuning in thinks, hey, this is what the truth is. When I was younger, you had to get two people to go on record before you could quote a source. That's gone. What took it away was the effort to compete. You had to scoop. Sometimes you couldn't wait around to do things the ethical way.
Q: Your next film is a TV documentary commissioned by the Discovery Channel called All the President's Men Revisited.
A: I'm very proud of it. It threads together scenes from All the President's Men with clips of Woodward and Bernstein, plus archival footage no one's ever seen of Nixon in the Oval Office saying things like, "What are we going to do about the Jews?" "How do we stop this Watergate thing?" How this man recorded his own mistakes thinking he was going to be this fabulous historical figure is beyond me. It showed how delusional he was.
Q: You said journalism has changed. Has politics changed along with it?
A: A key point in the documentary is the Senate hearings. There's a moral tone to those hearings: Both sides of the aisle, the Republicans and the Democrats, were trying to get to the truth. That would never happen today. First, there'd be no hearings. Secondly, they'd be fighting. The Republicans would never want to be part of looking for the truth, because their lies might be exposed.
Q: Is the documentary more of an exposé than the movie?
A: Actually, it's subtle about how journalism has changed. It doesn't come right out and say things were different then. There are people in it like Jon Stewart, Tom Brokaw and Joe Scarborough talking about how they remember Watergate, but we leave it to the audience to decide, if they want to, how journalism has changed.
Q: Your next movie, All Is Lost, comes out this September.
A: It's about what a man has to go through when there's a giant storm in the Indian Ocean. I'm the only actor, and there's no dialogue. It was really grueling. I enjoyed it because I really had to put myself out there.
Also of Interest
- Review of the Redford-directed drama, The Company You Keep
- Older voters oppose switch to chained CPI
- Share your wisdom and experience — help a child learn to read
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