Movies We Like
All The President’s Men
Watching the recent excellent documentary, Page One: Inside The New York Times, which questioned the potential end of print media and mature fact-based journalism, made me hanker to rewatch the greatest film about how journalists can seek the truth, and the standards and hoops they need to jump through in order to have their stories reported. Based on the true-story, autobiographical, political thriller by journalists Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, All The President’s Men details the young reporters' involvement in the Watergate scandal that worked its way through the cover-ups run by President Nixon’s staff, eventually reaching him and ending his presidency prematurely. All The President’s Men is a riveting account of the Watergate story from war zone reporters covering it, but today it’s also a reminder of the hard work and fact checking that goes into the coverage by these old dinosaurs, in this case the Washington Post, and the good that old media can sometimes bring to our democracy.
Aggressive young reporter Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) is put on the story of a small time, but suspicious burglary of the Democratic party headquarters at the Watergate Building in Washington DC. What makes the case more intriguing to Woodward and his superiors at the Washington Post is that the burglars all have pre-arranged high powered lawyers. He then discovers that the burglars have ties to the CIA and White House, meaning this wasn’t any old burglary; it was an attempt to bug the Democrats. Always poking his head in at the news room is the sloppier, but equally driven reporter, Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman). He eventually gets himself teamed up with Woodward and as the two work to crack the case it continually takes them up the White House ladder all the way to President Nixon (“Tricky Dick”).
Investigating and writing these groundbreaking articles isn’t all glamour for Bernstein and Woodward. The movie details the monotonous details of calling, waiting, confirming facts from two different sources, getting shunned with doors slammed in their face, and then sometimes - with work or with luck - catching a break and advancing the story. Watergate made Bernstein and Woodward into household names in their day; they had a lot of support from their superiors, Harry Rosenfeld (Jack Warden) and Howard Simons (Martin Balsam). Most famously the Post’s highly respected Executive Editor, Ben Bradlee (Jason Robards in an Oscar-winning performance), has doubts about the no-name reporters (always confusing their names, even mistakenly calling one of them “Woodstein”), but he showed enough faith to let the guys keep rolling, even under their own political pressure to drop the story.
After desperately looking for players to confirm their gut instincts, Bernstein and Woodward finally manage to coerce some breaks, getting information from Republican party employees, often under great distress, including a party treasurer, Hugh Sloan (Stephen Collins) and an intimidated bookkeeper (Jane Alexander in a quietly effective scene). But the super-duo’s most famous scoop came from a White House insider who was dubbed with the alias Deep Throat (Hal Holbrook). He would show-up in shadowy underground parking garages and help keep Bernstein and Woodward on the right track, sagely advising them to “follow the money” (after thirty years of speculation and mystery it was finally revealed that the real Deep Throat was then FBI Deputy Director Mark Felt).
After directing the acclaimed Klute and the more farfetched (and perhaps more challenging) political thriller The Parallax View, director Alan J. Pakula got his homerun with All The President’s Men, making him an important filmmaking presence. He would later have a quality outing with Sophie’s Choice, but most of his work from Rollover to The Pelican Brief felt second rate and shallow compared to his earlier films. Working very closely developing the material with producer Redford and big-time screenwriter William Goldman (Marathon Man), they perfectly turned a political history book into a taut political thriller. With Gordon Willis (The Godfather) working as cinematographer, All The President’s Men is the quintessential newspaper flick; the look is one of the more memorable traits. The Post’s offices are impeccably recreated on a set where Willis beautifully uses the overhead ceilings and florescent lights, using blues and white to make the cold pressure the reporters feel even more claustrophobic, while the streets are dark and shadowy as the paranoia grows.
The book All The President’s Men is much bigger, going into more details from inside the White House and deeper into the downfall of the presidency. While the film ends at Nixon’s second inauguration, just before their work really penetrated the American psyche, sticking to just Bernstein and Woodward, their point of view, no information is given to the audience that they do not know. The film is also wisely only about the breaking of the Watergate story; not much is gleamed about their personal lives, no side romances or personal demons. Redford and especially Hoffman create full characters from both their already identifiable personas they bring to the roles and the small clues cleverly sprinkled in the script (the chain-smoking Bernstein is the pushy one, while Woodward is more considerate, etc). It’s a classic odd couple, wasp and Jew, politically right and left, neat and messy, etc. Simple but effective, while the supporting cast all work at the peak of their creative skills.
As both a mystery film and a glimpse into the uncovering of the Watergate scandal, All The President’s Men is both thrilling and fascinating. For a movie about a couple of guys who seem to be bungling their way into history one phone call, one doorway at a time, the small details create the suspense and the characters' persistence makes the drama. As newspapers around the country are shutting down and technology is seemingly putting old-school newspaper men out of business, All The President’s Men is an important reminder about the diligence and intellect that gave the fourth estate its reputation for quality, not a really cool website.
All The President’s Men won four Oscars: Best Supporting Actor (Jason Robards), Best Sound, Best Art Direction - Set Direction, and Best Adapted Screenplay. It was nominated for an additional four Oscars for Best Supporting Actress (Jane Alexander), Best Director, Best Picture, and Best Film Editing.