All the President’s Men (1976)
Written by William Goldman
Directed Alan J. Pakula
On June 17, 1972, a security guard at the Watergate Hotel in Washington D.C. reported a break-in. Police arrived and found five men who had burglarized the Democratic National Committee headquarters there with the intent to wiretap the phones and offices. Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward is covering the early morning arraignment of the burglars and learns they already had counsel on retainer with signs pointing to a more powerful organization behind them. Fellow reporter Carl Bernstein is put on the story with Woodward, and they unravel a conspiracy that seems to trace back to the Committee to Re-Elect President Nixon. Millions of dollars have traded hands, and employees of the campaign are afraid to talk, alluding to threats against them. What have Woodward & Bernstein uncovered and how will it affect the nation going forward?
This is the first film in my Red, White, & Blue Cinema series that touches on a real-life event. It is a strange creature, trying to document the real-life uncovering of President Nixon’s surveillance program as well as be an entertaining political thriller. The tension in the film doesn’t come from any actual peril, but the idea that threats are looming in the shadows at all times. We have this established by Deep Throat, Woodward’s informant from the intelligence community, who demands that multiple taxis be taken before meeting up at night to throw off potential agents of the President. This paranoia is seeded in Woodward and leads to a nicely framed scene where he leaves their meeting, jumpy and continuously looking over his shoulder. I should be noted that the fear for their lives implied in the film, was never actually real for the reporters covering this story. No evidence of electronic surveillance, instead Bob Woodward has stated that the most deceptive act of the White House during this time was to push the myth that the Post’s reporting was incorrect.
But director Alan J. Pakula is attempting to establish an entertaining mood on top of documenting the investigation. This doesn’t mean he sensationalizes the events too grossly, the film’s finale features Woodward and Bernstein clacking away on their typewriters as Nixon’s second inauguration plays on the television. These are never characters who are going to engage in a shootout, their weapon will be the content they publish daily. Truth is their weapon of choice. All the President’s Men did, however, become one of the key films to create the political thriller genre. Along with The Manchurian Candidate, they are arguably the roots from which the sub-genre grew.
The movie is terrific at creating journalistic mythology, turning what are typically dull desk jobs of typing and making phone calls into something exciting and nail-biting. Jason Robards as editor in chief Ben Bradlee acts as the voice of reason, demanding more hard evidence due to the incendiary nature of the accusations in the pending articles. This leads to the film becoming a pretty overwhelming avalanche of names and events, some of which I was able to catch and make connections with because of supplemental reading I’ve done over the years. But if you didn’t have at least a baseline understanding of the players involved in Watergate, you would quickly become overwhelmed. This is a product of the film being of its time, made immediately in the wake of Nixon’s resignation.
The equivalent would be a film about the Trump presidency made after it ends and not going into too much detail about who Steve Bannon was. Most of us know who he is so the film wouldn’t have to spend time explaining him. However, if a movie is made thirty years from now, there would have to be some exposition so that the audience can grasp who Bannon was. I knew the name Haldeman, so when it started being thrown around, I knew he was someone who worked in the White House. I had to google it later and only then did I learn he was the President’s Chief of Staff.
One aspect of the film I loved was that Woodward and Bernstein’s personal lives were left untouched. Many mainstream movies seem to follow formulas, one being that a protagonist must have a love interest no matter how inappropriate to the plot that may be. I liked that we didn’t get to know if these men had significant others or were dating or if they were close to their family. It made every second of the film essential and continually focused on the mystery being uncovered.
All the President’s Men marks a moment in history where all the of the mistrust seen in these previous films about politics was open and clear to everyone in America. No one could just laugh at the exaggeration of Preston Sturges or know that John Frankenheimer was overblown in his conspiracies. The government was being used by a sitting president to spy and collect data on its citizens. Things would turn very cynical, and the public’s trust in its leaders would dwindle.