“Without the investigation and the mystery of uncovering hidden secrets, journalism is just typing.” —Norman Mailer
The Watergate scandal was a mystery that even Mailer might have traded his antique Smith-Corona to unravel. And though the burglary that triggered a president’s downfall is some four decades in our rear-view mirror, the present is certainly an appropriate time to consider the importance of and machinations behind quality journalism.
The Fourth Estate itself is in shambles these days, as newspapers suffer rampant layoffs and institutions that long served as loyal, civic watchdogs are effectively euthanized. In his day, Oscar Wilde wrote that the business had become “the only estate. … We are dominated by Journalism.” Today we are dominated by speculation passed off as news and self-important anger packaged as informed opinion.
As such, now is a prime moment to celebrate All the President’s Men, the film that best illustrates how journalism works and why it is a necessary component of democracy. And the movie, which plays as effectively as a procedural as it does a suspense potboiler, does so by remaining true to its roots, which is to say the truth.
The dirtiest political stain in U.S. history began somewhat innocuously with the June 1972 break-in and bug operation of the Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington, D.C.’s Watergate complex.
“The best journalists in the world could be forgiven for not realizing that this was the opening act of the scandalous political melodrama—unparalleled in American history—which would end up with the resignation of a disgraced president and the jailing of more than forty people, including the Attorney General of the United States, the White House chief of staff, the White House counsel, and the president’s chief domestic adviser,” recalls the renowned Ben Bradlee, then executive editor of the Washington Post, in his memoir, A Good Life. “But you would have to be Richard Nixon himself to say this was not a story.”
Yet that story may have evaporated into thin air were it not for the dogged work of Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.
Although All the President’s Men is ultimately the story of uncovering the scandal from the reporters’ point of view, what first interested Robert Redford, who bought the film rights to the book on which the movie is based and portrays Woodward, were the differences between the members of the so-called “Woodstein” team. At the time, the reporters were relatively insignificant figures in Washington media; Woodward, an Ivy League-educated WASP and former Navy lieutenant, was still a cub reporter on the city beat, and Bernstein, a chain-smoking Jew, was what Bradlee called in his book “the long-haired, guitar-playing Peck’s Bad Boy of the Metro staff.”
“I remember thinking, ‘This is very interesting, a study in opposing characters and how they work together,’” Redford says in the March 29, 1976, issue of Time magazine.
In the film, the clash of styles is evident early, when Bernstein (played as a bundle of nicotine-fueled nervous energy by Dustin Hoffman) tweaks the lede on one of Woodward’s first Watergate stories behind Woodward’s back. “I don’t mind what you did,” Woodward simmers, after agreeing that Bernstein improved the story. “I mind the way you did it.”
Redford began his research for the film by becoming a regular in the Washington Post’s city room, where he earned the cautious trust of Bradlee, who was concerned that the film accurately portray the Post’s handling of the Watergate stories. The unenviable task of transforming the heavily detailed book into a workable screenplay fell on William Goldman, the man whose script for 1969’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid helped make Redford a bankable movie star.
Goldman describes the challenge thusly in the June 2, 1975, issue of Newsweek: “I think this is the first movie in the history of the world in which the audience is smarter than the heroes. Everyone knows the story, so how do you tell it interestingly?”
While Woodward and Bernstein gained celebrity status following the scandal, Goldman wanted to portray them as young reporters struggling to break a story. “…they were just two moles burrowing into a burglary,” Goldman says in the Newsweek article.
(According to the same article, Bernstein thought the initial script—which played up off-color newsroom humor—read like a Henny Youngman joke book, and another Post reporter dubbed the screenplay “Butch and Sundance Bring Down the Government.” Goldman made revisions, but a significant portion of dialogue in the film is based on improvisation backed up by Redford’s frequent calls to “the boys” at the Post, according to the March 29, 1976, Time piece.)
As directed by the late Alan J. Pakula, the filmmaker behind the underloved 1974 political thriller The Parallax View, the ad-libbing adds to the naturalistic propulsion of the movie. After all, Woodward and Bernstein were in a frenzied search for truth, not knowing where each new detail would take them, often following dead-end leads and abstracting questions when they caught potentially valid ones.
In addition to spending time with their real-life counterparts, Redford and Hoffman were allowed access to the reporters’ Watergate files and given a glimpse at the then-unreleased The Final Days, Woodward and Bernstein’s book detailing Nixon’s last 100 days in the White House. Pakula, meanwhile, spent a substantial portion of the film’s $8.5 million budget re-creating a dead ringer of the Post office (he went so far as to have genuine Washington Post trash shipped to the Burbank, Calif., set; purchased hundreds of desks identical to those used at the Post; and duplicated Bradlee’s office library).
The break-in sequence that opens the film has added authenticity. Pakula shot part of the scene from the same Howard Johnson’s hotel balcony that served as the crow’s nest for Alfred Baldwin, the former FBI agent who was the lookout for the burglars on that fateful night. Pakula also hired former Watergate security guard Frank Wills, who caught the five perpetrators, to relive the moment.
It is not the film’s journalistic attention to detail, however, that makes it great. All the President’s Men so successfully immerses viewers in the twists and turns of the investigative process that it doesn’t matter we know the outcome.
Relatively early in their reporting, Woodward and Bernstein have an inkling of the break-in’s reach. “Forget the myths that the media has created about the White House,” Woodward’s anonymous source, “Deep Throat” (Hal Holbrook), tells the reporter in the film. “The truth is they are not very bright guys, and things got out of hand.”
But knowing what a puzzle looks like doesn’t mean the pieces don’t have to be put together. The thrill—and ultimate satisfaction—of All the President’s Men is watching the reporters try to assemble those pieces, sweeping us along with their every frustration, failure and breakthrough.
Opening less than two years after Nixon’s resignation, All the President’s Men faced amplified anticipation. Goldman told Newsweek prior to the film’s release that “expectations are so high on this movie that if the film is only good, it won’t be good enough.”
The movie, however, opened to widespread acclaim—including praise from the most scrutinizing audience of all, the previously wary Post staff. After an early screening, Bradlee praised the “stunning” set; Woodward told Time that when reporters see the film “they’ll say, ‘This is how we do it.’”; Bernstein likened the filmmakers and cast to seasoned reporters, saying, “Good reporters get their sources to trust them, and that’s what they did with us.”
The filmmakers also succeed at portraying the barest essential of journalism: the search for truth.
If All the President’s Men is as entertaining as any great detective yarn (and it is), it also asks viewers to consider the ethics and boundaries of governmental power and their own skeptical attitudes about the press. I read a poll a few years ago that ranked journalists among the likes of used-car salesmen and attorneys high on a list of least-trustworthy professions. While I didn’t find the poll particularly credible—TV weather forecasters were nowhere to be seen—it does illustrate a perception problem that is likely to grow as the struggling news industry continues to tread water and more people turn to less-than-reputable internet sources and/or screaming-head cable “news” shows for information.
As Bradlee tells his reporters in All the President’s Men, “Nothing’s riding on this except the First Amendment of the Constitution, freedom of the press and maybe the future of the country.”