All the President's Men (1976)


"All the President's Men" is truer to the craft of journalism than to the art of storytelling, and that's its problem. The movie is as accurate about the processes used by investigative reporters as we have any right to expect, and yet process finally overwhelms narrative -- we're adrift in a sea of names, dates, telephone numbers, coincidences, lucky breaks, false leads, dogged footwork, denials, evasions, and sometimes even the truth. Just such thousands of details led up to Watergate and the Nixon resignation, yes, but the movie's more about the details than about their results.
That's not to say the movie isn't good at accomplishing what it sets out to do. It provides the most observant study of working journalists we're ever likely to see in a feature film (Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein may at last, merciful God, replace Hildy Johnson and Walter Burns as career models). And it succeeds brilliantly in suggesting the mixture of exhilaration, paranoia, self-doubt, and courage that permeated the Washington Post as its two young reporters went after a presidency.

When Robert Redford announced that he'd bought the rights to "All the President's Men," the joke in the newsroom was about reporters becoming movie stars. What in fact has happened is that the stars, Redford as Woodward and Dustin Hoffman as Bernstein, became reporters: They sink into their characters and become wholly credible. There's not a false or "Hollywood" note in the whole movie, and that's commendable -- but how much authenticity will viewers settle for? To what secret and sneaky degree.

There must have been a temptation to flesh out the Woodward and Bernstein characters, to change the pace with subplots about their private lives, but the film sticks resolutely to its subject. This is the story of a story: of two reporters starting with an apparently minor break-in and following it, almost incredulously at times, as it finally leads all the way to the White House. At times the momentum of Watergate seems to propel Woodward and Bernstein, instead of the other way around. It must have occasionally been like that at the time, and it's to the movie's credit that it doesn't force its characters into the center of every scene.

The film begins, as did the Watergate affair, with five men breaking into the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) on 1 June 1972. The DNC was based in the Watergate office, hotel and residential complex in the Foggy Bottom neighbourhood of Washington DC. The late Frank Wills, the real-life security guard who discovered the break-in, played himself in this movie. The story is first taken up by junior journalist Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) as a minor incident. Soon, though, it begins to bloat out in all directions. Ben Bradlee (Jason Robards), the executive editor of the Washington Post, brings the more experienced Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) on board to work with him.

Woodward and Bernstein begin to dig – and here students of the history of journalism may marvel at how immensely more difficult all this investigative work was in the days before mobile phones and the internet, especially when at one point they have to go through all the hard-copy borrowing records at the Library of Congress by hand. The film shows correctly that their most mysterious source was known as Deep Throat, a high government official turned whistleblower, nicknamed after a notorious pornographic film of the time. The film never reveals who Deep Throat was, but that’s fair enough: his identity was not publicly confirmed for almost 30 years after it was made. In 2005, former FBI associate director Mark Felt finally admitted it had been him.

“Follow the money”

So catchy and apt has this phrase proved that it is now often attributed to Felt, even though he never said it. It does not appear in the Washington Post coverage of the affair, nor in Woodward and Bernstein’s book, also called All the President’s Men. In fact, screenwriter William Goldman – who also wrote Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Princess Bride and Marathon Man – invented the line for the movie.

Journalism's Finest 2 Hours and 16 Minutes

By Ken Ringle
Washington Post Staff Writer
June 14, 1992

It changes names, alters facts, eliminates crucial historical figures and mythologizes others.

It over-glamorizes reporting, oversimplifies editing and makes power appear the only proper subject for a newsman's pen.

But 20 years after Watergate, "All the President's Men" remains the best film ever made about the craft of journalism and an eerily accurate evocation of the mood and psychology -- if not the details -- of that byzantine presidential deceit and its unmasking.

For those of us who lived through those draining, mesmerizing, pulse-racing days within these walls a generation ago, there's both wonder and discomfort in that realization. Wonder because few of us ever hoped for as three-dimensional a portrait from Hollywood; discomfort because most journalists in those days thought of themselves as chroniclers of events, not major players. To revisit the 1976 film is to be reminded how much in our profession -- and our building -- the film helped change, not always for the better.

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Following his resignation, US President Richard Nixon bids farewell to White House staff on 9 August 1974, as his wife Pat and daughter Tricia look on. Photograph: AP

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