The representation of journalism has always been a vital part of Hollywood since the early days of slapstick and screwball comedies in the 1930s. The display of journalism as a profession often depended on the stakes involved in a specific sociopolitical context. While in the 1930s and 40s, newsrooms were presented for laughs and satire, the 1950s saw the rise of ominous, manipulative characters working out of greed to get their name on the front page. Kirk Douglas embodied a crazed reporter willing to let a man die a slow death just to have a story to tell in Ace in the Hole (1951). Similarly Tony Curtis and Burt Lancaster showed the dog-eat-dog underbelly of the newspaper business in Sweet Smell of Success (1957). Twenty years later, Hollywood’s perception of journalism shifted dramatically – from broad comedy and fantasy it revealed itself to be a precious source of knowledge – and Alan J Pakula’s All the President’s Men seemed to set the record straight, reminding the world what good journalism can and should do.
The story of All the President’s Men is the story of Watergate, of Richard Nixon and his friends getting caught red-handed. It is the story of two Washington Post journalists – Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) – as well as their editor, Ben Bradlee (Jason Robards), risking everything in order to get to the bottomless pit that is truth in Nixon’s America. Nearly 50 years after its initial release, All the President’s Men remains the golden standard for movies about reporting and the intricate web of questions and procedures behind it. More recently, Spotlight and Spielberg’s The Post timidly tried to pay homage to Pakula’s film, but failed to truly understand what made the film that caught Robert Redford’s eye as a producer in the first place stand out, namely the chaos – the chaos that rules the world we live in and the impenetrable nature of it.
Pakula’s understanding of paranoia (demonstrated in his previous films including Klute and The Parallax View) and the meticulous, almost anticlimactic story of Watergate and the various mysteries linking Nixon’s attempt at spying on his opposition are a match made in heaven. The tone of the film is entirely based on the tone of those years, which were filled with uncertainty, fear and the initial symptoms of conspiracy and mistrust which have now completely overwhelmed our lives through the use of social media almost fifty years later.
It is not quite cinéma vérité, nor is it classical filmmaking. It is something truly unique on a technical and storytelling level. As we meet Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein – played by two of the most recognizable and successful actors at the time – we are absolutely convinced that what we are seeing is the truth. The absolute, honest truth about men seeking truth in the their own right for the benefit of a nation.
Pakula stages scenes in the simplest of ways: he gives us a sense of the hustle and bustle of newsrooms, of men with sweaty shirts and coffee stains, of women running around answering phone calls and telling strangers off as they work on a story. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein are not folk heroes – which is ironic given the status they’ve grown into over the years and the presence they developed all over the media – they are tired, cocky and quite frankly not the smartest guys on the block. They’re workaholics. They live for the story, the intrigue. But, underneath their hunger for “the big story” lies a sense of decency which the people they’re busy investigating lack. It is that very basic difference – that simple human tick – that we recognize in both characters, allowing us to root for them.
Unlike in Oliver Stone’s Nixon or Steven Spielberg’s The Post, Nixon is not the boogeyman in All the President’s Men. Pakula’s film never puts a human face on the notion of evil that it wishes to analyze. Evil is manipulation. It is surveillance and the false sense of security. It is manifested in simple things like Bob Woodward having to look over his shoulder anytime he exits a cab or wishes to leave the house at night. The closest we get to the idea of evil is when we’re introduced to the character of Deep Throat, Woodward’s top secret source – a high-ranking member of US intelligence who is interested in getting bits and pieces of truth passed on the press. These bits and pieces are what constitute the evil Woodward and Bernstein work to expose. Deep Throat is never seen – his face often half lit, half hidden in the darkness of the underground parking lot where he meets with Woodward – just as the evil he talks about is never fully realized. The ominous words uttered by Deep Throat, “Follow the money,” soon became a common turn of phrase. Why? Because it gives you a vague idea of what drives our world, whether it’s 1973 or 2023. Evil is vague just as Deep Throat’s leads are. Follow the money, not the names, places or dates. The money.
It is precisely the ambiguity that permeates Pakula and legendary cinematographer Gordon Willis’ frames which makes All the President’s Men so incredibly fleshed out and immersive. The camera lurks and gets up close as our protagonists appear in seemingly simple situations. A scene that is only composed of one slow tracking shot as Robert Redford talks on the phone with a couple of sources turns out to be one of the most thrilling sequences in all of 1970s cinema. It is so entrancing that even when Redford experiences a slip of the tongue and gets a name wrong, we hardly notice it, or rather, it completely belongs to the story the film is telling. Even someone as cool as Redford can make a mistake while reciting a script during a nerve-wracking phone call, and Pakula’s camera captures it with a sense of spontaneity that makes the scene that much more credible.
The rest of the film unfolds with the same spirit of spontaneity. Woodward and Bernstein’s investigation quickly becomes an object of obsession and fascination, yet we can hardly follow what is going on – just like our protagonists. “The story is dry. All we’ve got are pieces. We can’t seem to figure out what the puzzle is supposed to look like,” Woodward tells Deep Throat, reflecting the audience’s thoughts and feelings. Because the greatest thing about the Watergate scandal as depicted in the film is not that the President of the United States was spying on members of the Democratic Party, but rather that everyone is for the taking and everyone can be touched. Safety? Security? Freedom? Total non-sense, say Pakula and screenwriter William Goldman.
Another important consideration to be made with regards to the movie’s critique of the establishment is the portrayal of television as a powerful ally to the establishment. Unlike the newsroom, where the hustle and bustle of the sweaty and foul-mouthed reporters results in concrete attempts at revealing some form of truth, television in Pakula’s film acts as the wicked mouthpiece protecting the interests of the powerful. Television sets are dispersed around the Washington Post‘s newsroom, presenting a counterfactual reality to the one Woodward and Bernstein are trying to unmask. Every attempt of theirs to try and get closer to the answers fuels the television’s tendency to relay the government’s version of the facts, adjusting their line of thought according to instructions from above. As Dustin Hoffman beats on his typewriter and Redford continues to bother potential sources on the telephone, the television plays in the foreground, showcasing the loud, incessant status quo. Once again, the film is not as straightforward to suggest that evil also stems from the power of television, but it hints at something more ominous and harder to define. It is that ambiguity, that lack of security, the uncertainty of the instruments we’re willing to bet our life on that contributes to the danger we’re exposed to on a daily basis – the danger of never getting close the truth. Is there hope? Well, yes – as long as the guy with the sweaty shirts and loosened collars continue to type away.
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