In lieu of the politics of late…
Somewhere in the back of my mind there is a room full of nothing but all of the very best political movies that my resilient retinas have allowed entry. Amongst such wonderful films as Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Costa-Gravas’ Z (1969), Andrzej Wajda’s Man of Iron (1981), etc. there sits one movie on a shabby desk with crumpled papers and notepads littering an otherwise visible typewriter. This movie is Alan J. Pakula’s classic All the President’s Men (1976) starring Robert Redford (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) and Dustin Hoffman (The Graduate) as the now legendary journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein who uncovered the Watergate Scandal that ousted Nixon from his presidential office.
When nobody seems to be questioning a possible link between five Cubans breaking into the Democratic National Committee in the Watergate building and an ever-expanding list of politicos who are remaining decidedly tacit about the whole ordeal, Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) starts pestering his boss, Ben Bradlee (Jason Robards, Once Upon a Time in the West), at the Washington Post to let him write more on the subject. Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) is assigned the project alongside the newer Woodward. No other papers seem interested in Watergate and more than half the country never heard of Watergate, but Woodward and Bernstein are determined to find the truth and discover why people keep changing their stories. What is everybody hiding? Through the anonymous source “Deep Throat” a.k.a. W. Mark Felt (Hal Holbrook), Woodward is encouraged that he is on the right track, but confounded by how ambiguous and elusive his source is . . . Ben Bradlee proves even more confounded by their lack of solid evidence. With bigger and bigger names being pulled from the investigative hat with no nameable source, and Bradlee’s neck on the line, it boils down to an all or nothing stance for the Washington Post to take…and they risk it all. If the Committee to Reelect President Nixon was involved with the Watergate burglary (and they deny it vehemently) then the Washington Post will be in a lot of trouble, but if Woodward and Bernstein are correct then it will be quite a story.
That’s the basics of what happens in the movie and the book it was based on (written by Woodward and Bernstein), but the real important thing to take away from this fantastic film is the power of the press and investigative reporting. This movie champions journalists and real journalism like no other, specifically American journalism. Watching this film it is hard not to realize how blessed we are that we live in a nation where this story could have happened. John Peter Zenger would be proud. Regardless of how our leaders may attempt to conceal the truth, let us never forget that we live in a nation where the truth can be uncovered as long as the drive to expose it exists. This brings me to another inspiring aspect of the film: Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein themselves! They dug. They didn’t have to. They risked a lot (before either of them had reputations), not because they were asked to (Bradlee wanted them to stop in the beginning), but because the truth was somewhere to be found. Was it so the American people would know? Was it to bother the government? Was it for the story? Was it for their own pride? Was it because the authoritative power of the truth was inherently driving them? Maybe it was just so people could be reminded that they could find the truth, even if nobody cared.
Freedom of the press and free speech is not merely a right as an American. It is an obligation. A questioning and discerning public should keep its government from misstepping too drastically.
Where Oliver Stone’s JFK (1991) desperately charges that the American people must know the truth at all costs (and does a good job of it), All the President’s Men never feels like it’s pushing any sort of agenda. Questions must be asked and answered because it is the natural way of humankind. It is how the youngest child learns and why should it be any different for the rest of us? All the President’s Men is one of the finest examples of investigative reporting caught on film and should inspire the reporters of today. Virtually the whole movie is Woodward and Bernstein asking questions and probing reluctant people through phone calls—practically half the movie is shots of people talking on the phone—and doorstep visitations and parking garage rendezvous.
In addition to the themes, the very craft of the film is great. The cast is perfect and the direction, writing, editing, cinematography, etc. are all top notch as well. There’s a reason it was nominated for so many awards (including Best Picture). All the President’s Men, in addition to being one of the greatest American movies, is one of the most American movies and it says and does things that can’t be said or done too often.
I was just thinking, this might make an interesting (if a bit strange) double-feature with Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998). That way you’d get two different extremes of American journalism. Just imagine if Woodward and Bernstein had teamed up with Hunter S. Thompson! No. That’s way too far.
Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” Jan. 13, 2010