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Original Essays

The Scoop on Woodward and Bernstein

by Alicia C. Shepard
 
  1. Woodward and Bernstein: Life in the Shadow of Watergate "Separating the men from the myth, journalism professor Shepard provides an insightful, highly readable study for fans of journalism, U.S. politics and the work of 'Woodstein.'"
    Publishers Weekly
This year marks the thirtieth anniversary of the movie All the President's Men, starring Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman as investigative reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, respectively. The movie made Woodward and Bernstein forever famous and has become a classic. It still runs on television, is played widely in journalism schools, and often is used as shorthand in high schools to teach about one of the most corrupt times in U.S. politics.

Although the movie is the result of Redford's determination to get it made as the Watergate story unfolded, its authenticity and endurance have everything to do with its director, Alan J. Pakula, who morphed into a Sigmund Freud with notepad before any camera rolled. His detailed notes, first made public in December 2005, were donated by his wife to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences after his death in 1998 in an automobile accident. They show how Pakula came to view his protagonists.

In January 1975, five months after President Nixon had resigned, Pakula flew to Washington to begin in-depth interviews with a dozen of the principals involved in unraveling the Watergate tale. He sat down with Woodward, then thirty-two, Bernstein, then thirty-one, their editors, their friends and the two women at the center of the reporters' lives. Woodward had married reporter Francie Barnard, and Bernstein was dating Nora Ephron, whom he married on April 14, 1976 — ten days after the movie debuted in Washington.

Pakula didn't want facts alone. He wanted to understand Woodward and Bernstein deeply so he could capture their true characters and motivations, for the movie. Ben Bradlee, editor of the Washington Post during Watergate, told me that Pakula spent "so much time with each of us. He knew all about my mother, brother — everything." (Jason Robards, who played Bradlee, is on screen only ten minutes.)

During Watergate, no matter how well Bernstein reported the story, he was pegged by Post editors as the "bad boy" of the duo — always late, unreliable and quick to hype his leads. In her interview with Pakula, Ephron tried to rehabilitate her boyfriend's reputation. She said Bernstein was driven to uncover the Watergate story because he wanted to prove everyone at the Post wrong. He was not lazy, she insisted. He just had a "psychosis" about being controlled by authority figures.

The notes from Pakula's interview with Ephron reveal a key to his understanding of Woodward and Bernstein. "Underneath all the arguments and fights — way down, they hated each other," Pakula wrote. "The qualities that each other had — the qualities that they needed [to report Watergate] — they didn't like. Bob's sucking up to people. Carl knew he needed [that quality] but despised it in Bob. Bob needed Carl because Carl was pushy. Bob can formulate and Carl can draw conclusions."

One story that Ephron shared with Pakula concerned how the two reporters sparred as they raced to complete the book All the President's Men. Woodward, she told the director, could be "so stubborn and bullheaded" and had "no instinct for writing." When Ephron and Bernstein were in Martinique on vacation, Woodward and Bernstein fought on the telephone, to the tune of a $400 bill, about verb tenses. Pakula's notes, dated May 2, 1975, indicate that he'd concluded this about the two reporters:

Bob thought Carl was "hype, no follow-through. All talk. Bull---- artist. Irresponsible."

Carl saw Bob as "a machine. He's a reporter doll. Give him a story, any story, and he runs with it. A drone. No humor. No surprises. All stability. White bread. Mr. Perfect. No soul."

Pakula gradually realized that neither Woodward nor Bernstein could have pulled off Watergate alone. Despite their stark differences, they needed each another. Each had strengths that complemented the other's.

"Bernstein could be right intuitively — but dangerous left to himself," Pakula wrote in his notes. "Woodward cautiously would have to go from one step literally to another. And yet it was Bernstein's daring that was necessary."

But in his interview with Woodward, Pakula discovered that the reporter could surprise: Other people's secrets fascinated and obsessed him. Although Woodward was reluctant to talk about himself as a reporter, he was determined to expose other people's secrets. The dichotomy intrigued Pakula.

But as Pakula began to understand Woodward, he wondered if the charming, handsome Redford, then thirty-nine, could play someone so different from himself. Woodward moved logically. His unfounded fear of being fired and his need to belong fueled his workaholic lifestyle.

Pakula wrote that Redford would have to "scrap his charm. It's that square, straight, intense, decent quality of Woodward's that works. Redford can get that compulsive drive. Can he get the hurt and vulnerability?"

Throughout filming in 1975, if there was a question on how Woodward or Bernstein might react, Redford or Hoffman or Pakula called either man. "It was the first film I ever made like this," Hoffman told me. "We kept trying to adhere to the authenticity of what happened by almost talking to them on a daily basis."

Whenever they could, Woodward and Bernstein visited the sets. One midnight in June 1975, Bernstein watched as Pakula directed a scene. Hoffman was running down an empty street, chasing after Redford's gray Volvo as it pulled out of the Post parking lot. He yelled, "Stop!...Woodward! Stop!"

Bernstein recalled in a 1975 interview, now in Pakula's archive, that "big crowds were outside. I got there just as Hoffman broke from the building. It was one of the most incredible feelings that I've had in my life because, you know, it had been a long time since we had started to work on the story, and I didn't exactly know who I was or who he was — existentially, it was sort of a total mind----. He had the mannerisms. You're not used to seeing your actions. Yet I knew that he was right."

As Hoffman ran, Bernstein, already a celebrity, understood how much had happened in the three years since five burglars broke into the Democratic Party headquarters at the Watergate hotel.

"I'm not really like that anymore," Bernstein said in the interview. "That happened a long time ago. Would I run like that again?" spacer

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