Essays · Movies

The Enduring Relevance of ‘All The President’s Men’

On the occasion of its 40th anniversary, we explored the legacy of Alan J. Pakula’s film about the Watergate scandal.
All The Presidents Men
Warner Bros.
By  · Published on April 12th, 2016

Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight did more than just win the Best Picture Oscar. The film, which tells the true story of a group of Boston Globe journalists that uncovered a deeply rooted Catholic Church child sex abuse scandal in 2002, helped surface a sense of societal faith in the noble profession of journalism. It also instigated a nostalgic, earned sense of pride in upright journalists themselves, who are fighting for relevance in an era of exposable listicles, click-baits, and rumors reported as news.

I don’t have proof to support the first statement beyond countless conversations I had with people about Spotlight, both in the US and elsewhere. In my motherland Turkey, where a severe case of a child sex scandal involving a government-linked foundation has just been unveiled, people talk about the journalistic process they’ve seen in Spotlight as the gold standard. “Wish we had a group of similarly brave reporters who would reveal how deep this runs,” several people told me.

As for my second statement, you just need to take a look at the countless reviews of the film as proof. Spotlight has been rightfully praised for capturing the painstaking, unglamorous process of good, honest reporting in dusty offices drowning in disorganized paperwork, where reporters in unstylish khakis pick up the phone or pick each other’s brains, trying to crack a story while navigating blindfolded in darkness.

All the President’s Men, Alan J. Pakula’s 1976 investigative procedural, is a title thrown around a considerable amount as a reference point to Spotlight’s decisively unglamorous aesthetics, meticulous nature, and slow-burning structure. Pakula’s intensely paced classic on the two Washington Post journalists — Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffmann) and Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) — who helped unveil the Watergate scandal leading to President Richard Nixon’s resignation, just turned forty a few days ago. And it will open the TCM Classic Film Festival in just a couple of weeks to commemorate this significant milestone.

The SpotlightAll the President’s Men circle coincidentally makes 2016 a noteworthy year for films about journalism. (Note that the two Sundance-premiering Christine Chubbuck films — Robert Greene’s nonfiction Kate Plays Christine and Antonio Campos’ Christine that depict the famous Florida news anchor’s on-air suicide have not even made the rounds yet.) Accidental it may be, but films celebrating earth-shattering achievements of a free press and those that illustrate the dark side of changing, cheapening media habits (like those upcoming Christine Chubbuck films, or recent-ish satire/thrillers like Gone Girl and Nightcrawler) are timelier and more essential than they have ever been. Just glance around. The whole country is polarized through an ongoing election process, with an often-trivialized narrative partly shaped by media sensationalism and “gotcha” headlines. Looking back at All the President’s Men today, the now versus then contrast of news gathering and media consumption habits is vastly sharp, as well as disconcerting.

Throughout its two-hours-and-sixteen-minute running time, All the President’s Men absorbs us in its maze-like, frustrating world of names, connections, clues, and isolated facts, and knowingly confuses us at times. So much that when the film opened, some critics voiced their mildly negative opinions regarding its inefficiency in streamlining the flow of events/information and inability in finding an emotional tone.

I think its cool, matter-of-fact stance is exactly why it still works today: it completely puts us in the shoes of the two reporters as they methodically attack the story (growing in scope beyond their wildest dreams), turning every stone and knocking on every door they can think of, often feeling perplexed themselves, and even fearing for their own safety. We watch them on the phone for extended periods, taking cryptic notes that involve instinctive evaluations (like decoding the honesty or reading the anxiety of the voice on the other side) or an endless list of names, names, names, with phone numbers if they are lucky. No search engine or online database to resort to. All they have is their notes, their instincts, and their (mostly) anonymous sources; the most important one being a man with the code name “Deep Throat” (Hal Holbrook), whom Woodward periodically meets at a dark parking lot to get tips and to stay on the right track.

We hardly get to see any big face-offs or volatile scenes. Pakula builds tension and generates legitimate thrills and discomfort through tedious periods of just waiting around or of the journalists’ interactions with a variety of uncooperative sources they need to outsmart. Even the ending, which entails a montage of a series of Teletype Watergate headlines, follows this non-sensationalist discipline. As the headlines grow in severity leading up to Nixon’s resignation — an outcome we obviously already know — Pakula somehow manages to maintain the heart-racing tautness.

In a 2014 interview with NPR on the 40th anniversary of the publishing of their book — from which the film is adapted by William Goldman — Woodward and Bernstein talk about their process of making their sources speak. According to Woodward, it was the key to their reporting:

“This was a strategy that Carl developed: Go see these people at home at night when they’re relaxed when there are no press people around. When the time is limitless to a certain extent, you’re there saying, ‘Help me. I need your help,’ which are the most potent words in journalism. And people will kind of unburden themselves, or at least tell part of the story.”

In the same NPR interview, they also talk about the fear of getting it wrong when all eyes were on them. And they once did, with a story that claimed a witness had provided testimony to a grand jury about White House Chief of Staff H. R. Haldeman. While they had the substance of the story correct, they made a mistake about the attribution of a grand jury. And with a heavy heart, knowing their big screw-up, they attended a lunch with a prospective publisher. Bernstein recalls:

“Here we were, meeting with this publisher that wanted to do a book with us. And we were talking about whether we were going to have to resign from the paper. You’ve got to remember that the stakes of this thing by now were so high that the president of the United States and his spokespeople almost every day were attacking The Washington Post for using innuendo and hearsay information. We had been assiduous and careful, and people were starting to really believe the stories we had written. And, boom, came this, and it looked like it could all be over.”

But the rest is history. They established their journalistic legacy with a Pulitzer Prize. Their reporting had a direct impact on the future of the country and inspired countless journalists that came after them. Their book got published, and the film got made.

Interestingly enough, the Watergate story was reportedly still developing when the writers were first approached by Hollywood for film rights. In a New York Times story, published the year the real Deep Throat’s identity was revealed to be William Mark Felt (the former associate director of the FBI), Redford talks about how his phone calls were disregarded for months by Woodstein (the reporters’ amalgam team name.) They thought it was a prank for some time.

Once the rights were secured and the wheels started turning, Pakula  — then known for Klute and The Parallax View, two films that also have an investigative nature — was hired to direct. And Goldman was on board to write the screenplay. Although there were multiple drafts at some point — one by Bernstein and his then-girlfriend (later-on wife) Nora Ephron — the final script was a re-write by Goldman.

Its production generated numerous trivia. As the TCM Classic Film Festival page also notes, the Washington Post did not allow the film to be shot in the paper’s actual offices. So the production team had to spend $450,000 to recreate the newsroom on two sound stages. The now renowned Library of Congress scene, which starts with a close up on the reporters handling index cards and gradually shows their smallness in the jumble of Washington — a shot that grows more and more metaphoric each time the camera draws further — reportedly cost $90,000 even though it only takes up about thirty seconds. Frank Wills, the security guard who found the tape on the doors of the DNC offices at the Watergate and ultimately discovered the break-in, plays himself in the film. And the list goes on.

My favorite scene of the film is a criminally on-the-nose one right at the end: a long take of Woodward and Bernstein punching the keys of their typewriters while writing one of their final stories. They are in the background, working solo and undistracted. In the foreground is a TV showing President Nixon taking the Oath of Office at the start of his second term.

What a fitting image with which to metaphorically consider the Oscars of 1977 when a country still in trauma was picking up the pieces post-Vietnam War. In the background were Best Picture nominees such as the frightening psychological thriller Taxi Driver, the scathing satire Network, and All The President’s Men that captured the essence of the times. And in the foreground was the shinier, hopeful underdog flick Rocky, which walked away with the prize. That must have been a much-needed happy Hollywood ending then.

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Freelance writer and film critic based in New York. Bylines at Film Journal, Time Out NY, Movie Mezzanine, Indiewire, and others.