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Five minutes with Robert Redford -- and the clock is ticking


Dustin Hoffman, Robert Redford in 1976’s All the President’s Men.

Pleasant surprise. It’s Robert Redford on the phone for a five-minute one-on-one interview that wasn’t supposed to be -- until the last minute.

A half-hour conference call with “select reporters,” as an email invitation put it, was being set up for Thursday, April 11th in connection with Discovery Channel’s All the President’s Men Revisited. It’s a 90-minute documentary film premiering Sunday, April 21st at 7 p.m. (central).

Your friendly content provider felt pretty good about being included in the mix, but didn’t really expect to get a question in. Realistically, unclebarky.com tends to be pretty low in the pecking order in these circumstances. They’re understandably going to take the bigger fish first.

But shortly before start time, another email said the format had been changed. Redford’s representatives would be calling directly, and I’d get five minutes of my very own with him among the six reporters participating from far media entities such as The New York Daily News and The Huffington Post.

“You get the ‘sound bite’ “ segment, Redford said affably as we went on the clock with his publicist keeping time.

The Discovery film, for which Redford is narrator, interview subject and co-executive producer, looks back at the making of the 1976 film All the President’s Men while also gathering many of the surviving real-life principals for new interviews. Rachel Maddow and Jon Stewart, who respectively were one- and 11-years-old when President Richard Nixon resigned on Aug. 8, 1974, are also included in the parade of talking heads.

It’s Stewart’s belief that a Hollywood studio wouldn’t have green-lighted All the President’s Men for the big screen without its over-riding cloak-and-dagger figure.

“I tend to think that no ‘Deep Throat,’ no movie,” he says. “I just think there is something so incredibly Bond-ish about it.”

Redford, who co-starred as Washington Post investigative reporter Bob Woodward, won’t go quite that far.

“I think he makes a good point,” he says of Stewart. “Obviously, I was very excited about the issue of Deep Throat. It took four years to make this film. And I was thinking all along, ‘God, I hope it doesn’t come out who Deep Throat is.’ But I think there would have been enough there anyway. Because it was really about what these two reporters (Woodward and Carl Bernstein) did, showing journalism from the inside and how hard work produced good results. So I think there still would have been a film. But it certainly was enhanced by Deep Throat.”

Redford and co-star Dustin Hoffman reunite for the Discovery film, sitting in deck chairs after exchanging pleasantries. But very little of their conversation made the final cut amid all the other talking heads and archival footage. Redford seems a little vexed by this.

“Yes, there will be more that we can say on the DVD (version), with Dustin and I talking about the work we did. Because a lot went into playing that, starting with the fact that they (Woodward and Bernstein) at first didn’t get along. I thought that was pretty powerful, and the (Discovery) film didn’t have time to show that. A film has got to know where to end. Right now I think it goes on further than it should. I would have stopped it earlier.” (The director is Peter Schnall, whose credits include George W. Bush: The 9/11 Interview and Secret Service Files: Protecting the President.)

The Discovery film notes a near-fatal error made by Woodward and Bernstein during the early stages of their sleuthing. They erroneously fingered Nixon’s right-hand man, H.R. Haldeman, as the fifth man exercising control over “hush money” being funneled by the Committee To Re-Elect the President. In Bernstein’s words during the Discovery film, “We made a mistake. We (expletive) up.”

Watergate dawned long before the blogosphere and its innumerable partisan attackers. Would Woodward and Bernstein have been cut off at the neck the way Dan Rather was in the immediate aftermath of his 60 Minutes II report on George W. Bush’s questionable Texas Air National Guard service?

Redford thinks Rather’s reporting on Bush might have lived to fight another day back in the 1970s. “There are so many voices out there now,” he says. “And so many are making mistakes right and left. Everybody’s claiming the truth. You don’t know where the truth is anymore.”

It’s also Redford’s belief that the “toxic” atmosphere in today’s Washington would have blocked the nationally televised Senate Watergate committee hearings that led to Nixon’s resignation.

At least one of the former president’s men remains steadfastly loyal to his old boss. Ben Stein, who graduated with Bernstein in 1962 from Maryland’s Montgomery Blair High School, went on to write speeches for Nixon and also serve as one of his lawyers. Archival footage in the Discovery film shows him tearfully watching Nixon say goodbye to his staff. And Stein weeps anew in the new interview for All the President’s Men Revisited.

I don’t think any president has been more wrongly persecuted than Nixon, ever,” Stein says. “I think he was a saint.”

Redford says it’s “great to have that kind of emotional outburst from somebody who still couldn’t accept it. We didn’t have to show that. But I wanted to show it.”

The phone line was left open after the half-dozen interviews had run their course. Told that he was done, Redford replied, “Boy, am I done. You have no idea how done I am.”

But he’s not finished talking yet. Redford is scheduled to promote All The President’s Men Revisited on NBC’s Meet the Press this Sunday. And before that, there’s an invitation-only April 18th screening of the film at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., with Redford, Woodward and Bernstein participating in a follow-up Q&A.

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