While the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign continues to attract strong interest worldwide, amid wall-to-wall news coverage and poll frenzies, politics-related films are always interesting to watch in the weeks leading up to Election Day.
Although there is no proven record of cinema influencing the outcome of an election, there are some remarkable films that allegedly may have influenced voters’ thinking. This is certainly the case of this week’s film from the bucket:
Alan J. Pakula’s 1976 political thriller “All the President’s men” (ATPM), the remarkable account of the Watergate conspiracy seen through the perspective of the two real-life Washington Post reporters, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, who uncovered one of the biggest scandals in American politics that ultimately led to the downfall of Nixon’s presidency.
Based on the 1974 memoir book of the same name by the two Pulitzer Prize Winning Journalists, ATPM is considered one of the best films about investigative journalism ever made and it has been praised for its compelling argument to the crucial importance of the freedom of the press and political accountability.
Starring Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman as Woodward and Bernstein, ATPM was part of a highly competitive Best Picture category that included: Sidney Lumet’s Network, Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, Hal Ashby’s Bound For Glory, and the unexpected winner, Rocky by John Avildsen.
Nevertheless, the film won four Academy Awards for Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Art Direction, Sound and Supporting actor and received universal acclaim by critics and audience grossing over $70 million at the box office.
“All the President’s Men” has become almost an historical document of the Watergate scandal. Robert Redford, who also produced the film, contacted Woodward and Bernstein while the scandal was still unfolding, a year before Nixon’s resignations.
Released in 1976, during the Carter-Ford presidential campaign, the film hit when the issue was still fresh in the minds of the American people and many people think it had helped to turn the tide in Carter’s favour.
Like “Spotlight” would do forty years later, ATPM captured for the first time the tedious, painstaking process that goes into real journalism, the long wait for leads, the endless phone calls, the failed attempts to get information from key witnesses, the frustrating dead ends, as well as the excitement of the end result, when the process eventually leads to success.
Redford insisted that everything played out on screen had to be factually accurate, so the screenwriter William Goldman and the real-life journalists worked together to ensure that every detail was correct.
The Oscar-winning script captures the pace and methods of old school reporting as no other film ever has, and Pakula’s documentary-like direction remains an unchallenged example of understated filmmaking. By keeping both the shooting style and writing relatively sober, cutting out all the glamorous Hollywood conventions, the writer and director focus on the procedural work that these two men do to prove themselves, but also highlight their obsession, their compulsion to keep pushing and searching for the truth. They don’t seem to have a personal life, no girlfriends, no friends, no family, they are hundred percent focused on their job and so are we, the audience’s attention is not distracted by unnecessary subplots.
Even though everyone watching the film already knows how the story is going to turn out, Alan Pakula somehow manages to create a sense of tension and suspense leaving the viewers as excited over the reporters’ discoveries as they are.
The film opens with a close-up of typewriter keys pounding out the date:
June 1st 1972
A piece of newsreel footage shows us smiling President Richard Nixon who has just returned from his historic trip to China and is about to address a joint session of Congress, oblivious to the fact that just two weeks later events would be revealed that will eventually lead to his resigning in disgrace.
On June 17th, 1972, Watergate hotel security guard Frank Wills (who played himself in the movie) spotted a possible break-in at the Democratic Party’s National Committee. Bob Woodward, a Washington Post junior reporter is sent to cover what appeared to be a minor story. At the courthouse he is surprised to find a White House attorney already on the defense case, and the discovery of names and addresses of Republican fund organizers scribbled in a notebook on one of the intruders further arouses his suspicions. The editor of the Post is prepared to run with the story and assigns Woodward and Carl Bernstein, a fellow, more experienced reporter, to the case.
There’s an initial conflict between the two characters that are complete opposites and have very different styles of reporting. Woodward is the newcomer who believes in facts above everything else; Bernstein, the seasoned hack who acts on impulse and believes the most important thing in a journalist is learning to trust his gut instinct.
However, soon they begin to respect one another and to work as a team to the point that their colleagues identify them as a single entity “Woodstein”. Their chemistry is perfectly captured on screen by the formidable couple Redford-Hoffman who gave outstanding subdued performances never allowing their star identity to interfere with the telling of the story.
After many twists and turns, the two men soon found themselves unearthing a shattering conspiracy that seemed to suck in nearly everyone in Washington.
Thanks to the support of their senior editors and with the invaluable help of Woodward’s now legendary secret source Deep Throat (only years later identified as FBI Deputy Director Mark Felt), they find that the break-in/bugging at the Watergate office complex was actually only the tip of the iceberg of a much larger intelligence gathering operation aimed at discrediting and destroying the political rivals and any adversaries who propagated a point of view contrary to the President.
In an iconic scene Deep Throat tells Woodward to “Follow the money” which has become one of the most famous catchphrases of all time. As soon as they start digging into it they discover hundreds of thousands of dollars of misappropriated campaign contributions to Richard Nixon’s Committee to Re-elect the President (CREEP) used to fund a covert operation to sabotage Democratic presidential candidates, a system of dirty tricks referred to as “ratfucking” i.e. stuffing ballot boxes, planting spies in the opposition, running up fake campaign literature and so on. All this dated back to a year before the Watergate burglary, when Nixon was behind Edmund Muskie in the polls.
In the final scene, set on January 20, 1973, Bernstein and Woodward type out the full story, in the background the TV shows Nixon taking the Oath of Office, for his second term as President of the United States.
A montage of Watergate-related teletype headlines from the following years is shown, ending with Nixon’s resignation and the inauguration of Vice President Gerald Ford on August 9, 1974.
As a result of the Watergate investigations 69 government officials were charged, and 48 pleaded or were found guilty, including:
John N. Mitchell- Attorney General of the United States, convicted of perjury
Jeb Stuart Magruder- Head of CREEP, pled guilty to conspiracy
H.R. Haldeman- Chief of Staff for Nixon, convicted of perjury
Finally the audience would expect a triumphant, satisfying ending instead the movie refrains from propagandistic slogans or any form of self-congratulation and adds a simple teletype footnote.
A perfectly coherent ending to a perfectly coherent film.
As Pakula himself explained: “The film is anti-corruption. There were a lot of cheap shots against Nixon we could have used, but we didn’t; we had only three shots of Nixon. We were not there to punish people but to tell a story about a corruption and what it could have done to our country.”
In fact, this film is really more about the step-by-step investigation than it is about the scandal itself. It stands as a great example and tribute to the men of the “Fourth Estate” demonstrating how even a man so powerful as a sitting President must not be allowed to believe he is above the law.
In one crucial scene Ben Bradlee, the skeptical Washington Post executive editor, superbly interpreted by Oscar winning Jason Robards, finally gives some encouragement to his Post reporters urging them to soldier on:
“We’re under a lot of pressure, you know, and you put us there. Nothing’s riding on this except the First Amendment of the Constitution, freedom of the press, and maybe the future of the country. Not that any of that matters.”
Bottom line: Don’t mess this up.
All the President’s men stands as a masterpiece in it’s own right, not just as a fine work of cinema that featured strong storytelling, excellent acting, superb direction, and impressive cinematography but also as a hard-hitting political commentary and a strong reminder of the need for committed investigative journalism.
Forty years ago Watergate marked the birth of a different kind of reporting, more aggressive and much less deferential to the establishment.
Today more than ever, as Bernstein warned in a recent speech, in the age of Twitter where in-depth reporting is not in high demand, where politicians provide “easy answers to tough questions” we need examples to show us how real journalism is done, with all its difficulty and complexity and, especially, the moral ambiguities and choices a truly free press must deal with.
The press, he argues, “remains our last chance at holding institutions accountable through the best obtainable version of the truth.”