#22) All the President’s Men (1976)
OR “Bob & Carl and CREEP & Nixon”
Directed by Alan J. Pakula
Written by William Goldman. Based on the book by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward.
Class of 2010
There is so much to unpack about the Watergate Scandal (or as I like to call it “Watergate-gate”), but this post is focusing on the film itself. Also, this is a revised and updated version of my original “All the President’s Men” post, which can be read here.
The Plot: In June 1972, rookie Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) is assigned to cover a minor story about five burglars arrested for breaking into the Democratic National Committee’s D.C. headquarters at the Watergate complex. Upon learning that the five burglars all have CIA connections, Woodward continues to investigate, joined by fellow Post reporter Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman), who is also intrigued by the mystery surrounding this break-in. With support from Post editor Benjamin Bradlee (Jason Robards) and enigmatic informant “Deep Throat” (Hal Holbrook), Woodward and Bernstein’s research leads to President Richard Nixon’s re-election campaign and the biggest political scandal in American history. Well…up to that point.
Why It Matters: The NFR calls the original book the rare source material to be “transformed into a hit film and a cultural phenomenon in its own right.” Pakula’s “taught” directing is also praised. D.C. film critic Mike Canning pens an essay that is mainly an overview of the movie through a series of segmented trivia. What kind of two-bit operation is this?
But Does It Really?: There are good movies, and then there are damn good movies. “All the President’s Men” is a damn good movie. There are a lot of films out there about journalistic integrity and freedom of the press, but “President’s” is the only one that accurately conveys the rush of covering a news story. Part detective noir, part historical reportage, the movie has a wonderful forward momentum as you watch Woodward and Bernstein pull at a thread that quickly unravels. Aided by a first-rate ensemble, wonderful direction, and a screenplay that depicts everyone as grounded people rather than historical deities, “All the President’s Men” has endured as the gold standard for movies about journalism.
Wow, That’s Dated: I honestly don’t know how to contextualize this movie in a post-Trump/”Fake News” America. How do I explain that there was a time when you assumed the President wasn’t corrupt and that all news information came from credible, trustworthy sources? I worry this movie plays more like a Sorkin-esque fantasy nowadays.
Title Track: The title is, of course, derived from the novel “All the King’s Men“, itself taken from the “Humpty Dumpty” nursery rhyme about a great fall and something broken that cannot be fixed. Get it? GET IT?
Seriously, Oscars?: One of the biggest hits of the year, “All the President’s Men” entered the Oscar race with eight nominations, second behind “Network” and “Rocky“. “President’s” lost four of its nominations to these two films, but tied “Network” for most wins of the night with four: Adapted Screenplay, Art Direction, Sound, and Supporting Actor for Robards.
- Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein were on the fence about writing a book regarding their experience breaking the Watergate story, but when Robert Redford approached them about buying the film rights, the two were motivated to complete the project. Redford had been fascinated by Watergate since its beginning, and encouraged Woodward and Bernstein to focus on their personal experience rather than a rehash of the events.
- William Goldman was hired to write the screenplay, but his draft was rejected by Redford following disapproval from Woodward and Bernstein. Bernstein and his then-girlfriend Nora Ephron took a crack at a draft, which – unsurprisingly – highlighted Bernstein as the real hero and quite the ladies’ man. When Alan J. Pakula came on board to direct, he and Redford threw out the Bernstein/Ephron draft (save for a fictional scene where Bernstein outsmarts a secretary) and conducted their own research. Despite the extensive re-writes, enough of Goldman’s original screenplay was used to warrant him receiving sole credit in the final film.
- Man alive is that a great opening. With the startling crack of a typewriter key mixed with the sound of gunfire, this film tells you exactly what kind of ride you are in for.
- One of the cops who busts the Watergate break-in is a pre-“Amadeus” F. Murray Abraham, and one of the burglars is a pre-“Sopranos” Dominic Chianese. Also involved in this scene is Frank Wills, the actual security guard who reported the break-in, playing himself. In fact, the break-in’s attention to detail is impressive, except for the omission of the ping pong player staying at the hotel who called security.
- While we’re talking about Watergate, can we please put the kibosh on giving every major scandal the “-gate” suffix? It makes no sense. The word “gate” is not short for scandal, it was the name of the building!
- Everybody’s so damn good in this. Redford and Hoffman have their natural charisma of course, but their performances have a drive to them. You get caught up in their unrelenting pursuit of this story. As Jack Warden says later on to Martin Balsam, “They’re hungry. You remember when you were hungry?”.
- Speaking of, shoutout to Warden and Balsam, two angry men reuniting as editors Harry Rosenfeld and Howard Simons. You really get the feel that they are old-school journalists who have been on this beat forever. Also great is Jason Robards as Ben Bradlee, with a winning combination of command and approachability. You see Bradlee’s inner fire get reignited by being around Woodward and Bernstein.
- Many scenes were filmed on location in Washington D.C., including the Library of Congress, birthplace of the NFR. Interestingly enough, the Library was not happy with the production being there, at one point revoking permission to film and straight up denying its Watergate connection. Fortunately, the production called on Jack Valenti to intervene, and the scenes were shot. Subsequently, very few films have been allowed to shoot inside the Library of Congress.
- The identity of “Deep Throat” was not revealed until 2005, when former FBI Associate Director W. Mark Felt divulged his participation as Woodward’s deep background source. The casting of “Deep Throat” for the movie was left up to Woodward, who selected Hal Holbrook from a pile of headshots. And while we’re on the subject: Due to its significance within this scandal, is the 1972 porno “Deep Throat” worthy of NFR recognition? Discuss amongst your group.
- My love for single take scenes continues with a beautiful six minute shot of Woodward on the phone with Kenneth Dahlberg as the story inches closer towards Nixon. The scene is covered in a slow zoom, with split focus on both Redford and the background of the newsroom. It’s a wonderfully tense composition, and yet another example of Gordon Willis’ stunning camerawork being snubbed by the Oscars.
- Who ISN’T in this movie? In addition to everyone mentioned already, there’s Ned Beatty, Polly Holliday, John McMartin, Penny Fuller, Meredith Baxter, Robert Walden, and so on. Making the most of their limited screentime is Jane Alexander, who earned an Oscar nomination for playing Judy Hoback, Nixon’s re-election campaign bookkeeper who helped Woodward and Bernstein follow the money.
- Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham was originally to appear as a character in one scene, and names like Lauren Bacall and Geraldine Page were considered. Graham, however, requested the scene be removed from the screenplay, and no one was ever officially cast. Graham later regretted this decision.
- The best part about this movie is that with the exception of the opening break-in, no information is revealed until Woodward and Bernstein learn about it. You get the sense of discovery alongside them, and like the two, you don’t really get what it’s all about until they start putting the pieces together, only realizing how big it is when you take a step back.
- “All the President’s Men” premiered in April 1976, and played well into the fall, though Warner Bros. claimed this was not a deliberate attempt to influence the 1976 presidential election. While some critics were disappointed in the lack of character development for Woodward and Bernstein, both of their real-life counterparts approved of the final film.
- While this may have been Alan J. Pakula’s peak as a film director, he certainly left behind an impressive filmography. Between this, “Klute”, and “The Parallax View”, choosing Pakula’s best film is a real “Sophie’s Choice”, which he also directed.
- “All the President’s Men” still gets referenced with some regularity in pop culture, though mainly because of the title and the historical events depicted. There are, however, the occasional references to “Follow the money”, a line written specifically for the film.
- One of the film’s more faithful parodies is this classic “Simpsons” episode, right down to Woodward and Bernstein’s dad waiting in the car reading Archie Comics.
- A few other film projects have some shared DNA with “All the President’s Men”. The 1989 TV movie “The Final Days” is an adaptation of Woodward and Bernstein’s follow-up book about Nixon’s resignation. 2015’s “Spotlight” covers the Boston Globe’s takedown of Catholic priests, and features Ben Bradlee Jr. as a major character. The film’s parallels to “President’s” were highlighted frequently in its ultimately successful Oscar campaign. 2017’s “The Post” stars Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep as, respectively, Ben Bradlee and Katharine Graham during their controversial decision to publish The Pentagon Papers. The film even concludes with the Watergate break-in.
- I’m gonna go ahead and reserve this space now for the inevitable movie made about the Trump presidency. We’ve gotten “The Comey Rule“, but we’re still waiting on the Oscar-bait, “Hindsight is 20/20” one that focuses on the journalists and their fight for freedom of speech.
Further Viewing: Nixon’s “I’m not a crook” speech, which, and I can’t stress this enough, was delivered at the Contemporary Resort at Walt Disney World. Remember the magic!
Further Further Viewing: The 2012 documentary “All the President’s Men Revisited”. Come for the reflections on Watergate upon its 40th anniversary, stay for Ben Stein crying during his interview.