' ' Cinema Romantico: Carl Bernstein Weighs In

Tuesday, February 01, 2022

Carl Bernstein Weighs In

Anyone who’s known me too long has probably only known for me, like, you know, three, four years, so anyone who’s known me really too long has probably known me since at least the 90s. And anyone who’s known me really too long knows that I was steering the bandwagon for Andrew Fleming’s “Dick” (1999) being the preeminent Watergate movie since I saw it literally before it opened (I was managing at a movie theater at the time) and strode into an empty parking lot in the wee hours of some August 1999 morning thundering about the incisive commentary I had just seen and told by my fellow theater managers, who in fairness probably just wanted to go home and go to bed, to settle down. Since then, others have blessedly come around to the film’s magnificence. When Mark Felt was revealed to be Deep Throat in 2005, Sasha Issenberg penned a piece for Slate arguing that “Dick” was the Watergate movie that got it right, not least “by capturing Deep Throat’s essential banality...that Deep Throat could never be as great a character as we had hoped.” (So true.) Almost ten years later, for the 40th anniversary of Nixon’s resignation, Alyssa Rosenberg deemed it “the best movie about Nixon and Watergate” and three years later, at the beginning of the T*ump Presidency, Alissa Wilkinson judged it “the best of the (Watergate movie) bunch” for Vox. I felt vindicated. Nice to have everyone aboard finally! But there was one person I never expected to welcome onto the bandwagon.

In a recent interview with Carl Bernstein for his Pressbox podcast, the invaluable Bryan Curtis asked the Pulitzer Prize winning reporter for his favorite journalism movies. Bernstein cited the Howard Hawks masterpiece “His Girl Friday.” Then he paused, and just when you thought he was going to mention “All the President’s Men”, he referenced not Dustin Hoffman but another actor. “McCulloch,” Bernstein said. He was referring, of course, to the Canadian Bruce McCulloch who played Carl Bernstein in “Dick ”with Will Ferrell co-starring as Bob Woodward. The real Bernstein said: “They’ve got down every aspect of our dopiness.” The real Bernstein laughed and laughed. He really seemed to love it.

Of course, this might make more sense than I think. After all, in his memoir “Adventures in the Screen Trade”, William Goldman, who wrote “All the President’s Men” and won an Oscar for it, told the story of being summoned to a meeting with Robert Redford to discover the real Carl Bernstein along with this then-girlfriend Nora Ephron had written their own version of Alan J. Pakula’s 1976 journalism drama. I mean, what an ego! And McCulloch is playing straight to that ego. The first time we see him is in this truly glorious medium long shot staring at Ferrell’s Woodward, who is taking his first phone call with the mysterious Deep Throat, with a hysterically inflated “Hmmmmmm” expression on his face, a perfect lampoon of catching the whiff of a news story. 

He walks across the office, shaking out his feathery mane as he does so, a comic tactic McCulloch repeats throughout. If “All the President’s Men” made Carl Bernstein into a matinee idol then McCulloch is playing a character who thinks of himself as a matinee idol, even if we quickly discover he is really just an insecure loser who saw the actual “Deep Throat” movie by himself in theater and does not want Woodward to reap all the glory. Throughout, Bernstein proves as much an impediment to the truth as a conduit to it. “Don’t do this to me,” Woodward begs after one embarrassing moment with their editor, a line Ferrell really gives the ring of desperation.

This might suggest reporters, so crucial to helping maintain democracy, are cast in a bad light. But’s that not quite right. Unlike the vainglorious, humorless subjects to whom so many journalists necessarily stick it, at least Bernstein can laugh at himself. 

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