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.