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All The President’s Men

*****
1976

‘…cemented as a rare film that’s worth more than a footnote in our history books; deftly written ably performed, and for once not sparing on the granular details so few films bother with…’

For all the swagger and boastfulness, it seems that there’s a limited number of Americans who are actually interested in truth and justice; there’s a steady stream of craven cowards who want us to look the other way while the country collapses under the yoke of criminal self-interest. With a deepening crisis showing no signs of being arrested, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein are regularly trotted out to remind us that the current ongoing crisis makes Watergate look like small potatoes in comparison. But until Jan 6th 2020, Watergate was the greatest example of illegal government interference in the free world’s everyday life to date. In an era where an ex-president can’t bring himself to condemn 9/11 because of, well, money, it’s time to remind ourselves of how investigating a cover-up can lead us directly to ‘follow the money’ and arresting the criminals themselves.

William Goldman has written about his first draft of the script for Alan J Pakula’s celebrated film about Woodward and Bernstein and the Washington Post’s Watergate investigation; he takes credit for only telling the first half of the story, and in a sombre way that puts the emphasis on the solid detective-work of the reporters. With Robert Redford producing, the script was substantially re-written by Nora Ephron amongst others; there’s a pleasing little scene in which Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) tricks a secretary into allowing him into an office that feels like Ephron’s work. The result is a complex political situation, skilfully outlined; after the court-case following the Watergate break-in leaves a few strands to pull, WaPo’s dynamic duo spring into action, indefatigably chasing down leads in hotels and car-parks until a far larger conspiracy is revealed. Nixon himself is only seen on tv screens; this is a story that zeroes in on courageous journalists with ‘a taste for the jugular’, and those who were prepared to speak up rather than hide behind specious claims of ‘shabby journalism’, lies and executive privilege.

‘Have you ever heard of loyalty?’ is the ‘only carrying out orders’ defence Woodstein encounter, and nothing has changed today; the criminals loyalty is not to their oath, their country or their party, it’s loyalty to their crimes, fellow criminals and the avoidance of being caught. Both the journalists and their contacts end up fearing for their lives; there’s a memorable scene in which Woodward and Bernstein communicate by typewriter to stop anyone listening in to their conversation. ‘When all of this is done, we’re going to do the same to you.’ is the threatening response they get, and it’s hard not to see the exact parallels with the partisan response of many, but not all of the Republican party to Jan 6th to date. They simply don’t want to know.

Director Alan J Pakula didn’t live to see the year 2000; he died in a freak car accident on the Long Island Expressway in 1998. If he’d lived longer, he’d have seen All the President’s Men cemented as a rare film that’s worth more than a footnote in our history books; deftly written ably performed, and for once not sparing on the granular details so few films bother with. The ‘rat-f**king’ black-ops department that ignored the law to covertly persecute their political opponents hopefully reached a nadir under cancerous era of Trump, but with the current optics of him attempting to run the country from a shadow government in the back room of a tacky golf-club, things are unlikely to improve. The importance of history is that we learn from rather than sentimentalise or eulogise it; otherwise the democracy and freedom that we once cherished will be rapidly consigned to the dustbin of history.

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  1. I have to agree with tarantulatantrum. I was a fan of Pakula but Parallax View and Klute were my favourites. There is nothing wrong with All the President’s Men but it didn’t have the impact of Nixon’s resignation speech in 1974 for me. It’s a long time ago but I suspect I read the book or at least parts of it before I saw the film.

    Just on the point about the internet putting newspapers out of business, last week the Guardian announced a profit for the first time in years because of US and Australian internet subscribers paying more than collectively than the costs of producing the paper. I’m not sure whether it is a good thing or not. The Guardian is not the paper it was I fear.

    • I really need to have a proper look at Klute, seeing it as a teenager on a pan and scanned version did it no favours. I can imagine audiences not being wowed by All The President’s Men at the time; what with the topic and big stars, it’s a remarkably serious film that generally avoids the sensastionalism expected.

      I thunk you’re also correct re The Guardian’s ‘profit’, which comes after canning nearly 200 staff during the pandemic. This blog makes a healthy profit, but it’s not a newspaper, and The Guardian isn’t much of one either these days…Newspapers should have had a massive head start on the internet, but unfortuantly were run by people who just didn’t see the future coming…

  2. thank you for all the words in your critique! Especially poignant: ‘a rare film that’s worth more than a footnote in our history books; deftly written ably performed, and for once not sparing on the granular details so few films bother with.’ While Watergate is perhaps still best known (and in my top 10 list), and I worked for WJ, the company that built the receivers used to bug those offices, there are far more scandalous scandals in our history… To whit, Union/Pacific RR corruption/cronyism 1867; Teapot Dome bribes involving big oil, Navy, Pres Harding’s staff 1920s; McCarthyism 50s; Iran Contra 80s and 67+ other arrests for bribery, conspiracy, vote fixing, fraud, perjury…in Reagan admin! Not to mention his close 2nd Nixon and Checkers speech, VP resigned in disgrace/tax fraud; Bobby Baker and corruption/tax evasion scandal… My personal fav: 1974 Franklin Nat Bank bailout, coverup, and exposure of child sex ring.
    I met Redford once, in the 70s in an elevator at Watergate (post movie). He nodded; I nodded and as he exited, I still recall thinking I thought he was taller…nice butt.

    • You met redfor at Watergate? You made the listening devices used to bug the offices? Are you sure you didn’t meet them in underground car parks? I’m forwarding this IP address to the DOJ, you can expect a visit some time before 2029….

  3. Been a while since I watched this, but I remember liking it although not as much as some of the other ones like Parallax View and Day of the Jackal.

    It’s a funny old thing in cinema, the more you try to present a principled philosophy, the more in danger you are of preaching, and that turns off an audience like nothing else, even if they completely agree with your principles!

    I call it the paradox of the parallax!

  4. I’m embarrassed to say I’ve never seen this film. I know of it, of course, and have sort of always meant to and never got around to it. “Spotlight” is one of my favorite modern films, so I’m certain I’d like this. Thanks for the reminder that I need to plug this hole in my cultural knowledge.

    This one was back in the old days, when presidents at least attempted to cover their crimes.

    I suspect it will be many decades before any film made about Jan 6 feels like anything other than an extended Saturday Night Live skit.

    • Betcha didn’t know that Ephron was involved here, although maybe marrying Carl bernstein means we should be surprised. It’s going to be hard to resit going down the SNL route, but comedy might just be the right way to approach; one would have thought Adam McKay would be all over this, and Billy Ray has one already moving forwards…the cover-up is key, the missing secret service texts and the lack of Ginni Thomas so far suggest that in terms of toxic govermnet malfeasance, as Kimberley Guilfoyle correctly put it, the ‘best is yet to come’…as long as the key info comes out before the midterms, the DOJ won’t be stopping…if they ever get started…

      • You’re right, I did not know Ephron was involved!

        I actually think the right way to do a Jan 6 film would be to have no actor for Trump (just show the real Trump on TV as you suggest was done in this film, and as Diana was in the Queen) or show him as little as possible. It’s hard to not portray him in a comedic way like a buffoon, and while I think that’s accurate in many ways, he’s such a malignant figure that such a portrayal lets him off the hook in many ways.

        I’d like a film that answers one of my deepest questions about Trump – who is he when he’s all alone and the cameras are off? Is he truly in on the joke, or has he convinced himself of his own lies? Perhaps unknowable, but I’d like an interpretation…..

        • A good observation, but if we keep Trump offscreen, it adds to his mystique. I’m sure we’ll see Jan 6th from a cops POV, as a women vs men story in the cover up, a biopic of Trump, a focus on a rioter’s story, we’ll get all the angles, even the gormless Melania who claims she didn’t notice the overthrow of the government that her husband was leading. But you’re also right that Trump should not be played for laughs. No-one is advocating for Trump to be tried for his idiotic pandemic response that probably led to untold deaths, but that wider story is eclipsed by his illegal attempt to seize power and turn the US into a Russian state. It seems amazing that anyone tries to pretend that a Godless creature like Trump doesn’t do the bidding of America’s enemies, but as to whether he’s just a ‘useful idiot’ or a genuinely evil man, it’s hard to say. I imagine the truth is both; he’s a dupe, a dope, and a smear of excrement on the American soul. Firstly, he has to be stopped, otherwise we’re all for the gulag…

          • You’re right, of course. No one has cracked the code on Trump quite yet. I think you’re also right that we’ll be inundated with films, and I’ll only be able to take so many. At this point, the specter of his potential re-election is enough to give me nightmares. I’ve given up on him paying for his crimes; I’ll be begrudgingly satisfied with keeping him out of office.

            And here you’ve got me talking politics, which I try to never do on the internet! However, to me this transcends partisan concerns so it almost doesn’t count as “politics.” The president attempted a coup – that’s fact and not opinion, and we look away and rationalize it at our great peril.

            • Great point! I’ve had some pushback on Trump sneaking into my postings, but I can see points of merit and weaknesses in Republican and Democrat philosophies. In Europe, we have war memorials everywhere, and won’t forget what the deadly price of autocracy is. If there’s one thing that might unite us all, it’s that we do want elections and not a bloated media-loser enslaving us to his financial advantage. Trump had 80 million followers on Twitter due to a failure of social media management. Now he has four. While there will always be cowards who want to find excuses for what happened, we need to get shot of such wannabe dictators and mini-Hitlers and get back on with politics serving the people, and the sooner the better.

            • 7 days in May is an earlier dry run version of 1/6 in several ways; in the US we also had Shay’s and Dorr rebellions; Civil War; battle of Liberty Place; overthrow of Hawaiian Gov’t travesty; Wilmington White Supremist insurrection, others…

  5. I will never forget that typewriter. As bold an opening from Goldman as his celebrated making coffee from used grounds in Harper. Because of the subject matter, the greatest of all the paranoia films. Not the last time journalists uncovered political crime and cover-up, but one of the few times they got to the core truth. A great many other participants in US scandals managed to weave and dodge enough to avoid punishment. The teaming Redford and Hoffman was a masterstroke and Pakula did not put a foot wrong. A word of praise too for Jason Robards, always putting pressure on the pair, acting as a true ruthless editor rather than most Hollywood-ised versions.

    • Totally agree. Robards does an awesome job here, and it’s interesting in that the emphasis is on the hacks convincing him; Bradlee is the actual antagonist here. I think Goldman was used to having more contro over his words that Redford provided, even on their 3rd or 4th go round together, but his fingerprints are all over this, and he plays down many of his usual strengths in favour of a more sober approach. And yes, Harper is a great point of comparison, since this movie is all about the struggle with mundane obstacles on the way to a higher learning. And Hoffman and Redford make the whole mix gel, with great, fluent movie star performances to keep the result engrossing.

      • One of the few instances where starpower tackles a difficult subject and makes it work. Redford and Hoffman are such contrasting personas that you never get the impression of scene stealing. My feeling is that without Redford it would not have been so good – or even gone ahead.

    • Well said. Robards absolutely deserves praise as well! I tip my fedora to all the unsung investigative journalists. I still know a few, though they’re being published by alt pub houses. Reagan and his cronies racked up far more scandals–frosts my cookies some of their misdeeds were covered up.

      • Am glad to see those kind of journalists are still being published. But all journalists to some extent are under the lash. I remember seeing a film way back in the day about I.F. Stone who ran a weekly mostly on survival rations and was beholden to absolutely no one.

  6. The sad thing is what’s happened to journalism. I don’t mean their loss of public trust but the way the Internet basically put newspapers out of business, and changed not only the way we consume news but the nature of that news.

    Yolk. I seem to remember that one.

    • In the film Vice, there’s a tart line about the de-regulation of nightly news, something that didn’t seem like a huge deal at the time; the idea was that news did not have to pretend to be balanced anymore, and the internet accelerated that process. One of the surprising things here is that anyone is willing to talk to Woodstein at all. Press wasn’t something funnelled through a craven liar in the press office, but polite enquiries were dealt with by individuals. You’re right to think that journalists aren’t what they used to be, but investigate journalists were the first to be cut.

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