By John H. Foote
When Richard Nixon was re-elected President in 1972, he rode into office on the wave of the greatest landslide in American political history. Did he know just 18 months later, disgraced, he would resign the Presidency under the cloud of the Watergate affair? I think Nixon thought his substantial achievements in the Oval Office might buy him a pass, but his belief that the President was above the law was his undoing, that and the fact he never felt worthy of the office he held. But that is another film, Nixon (1995) and yes, I plan to revisit that great film soon.
When a break-in at Democratic Headquarters in the Watergate building became news, two no-name reporters at the Washington Post were assigned the story. Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) were not friends yet would form a formidable duo in writing about a Watergate. Slowly, painstaking research allowed them to piece together an elaborate puzzle and they found that the break-in was tied directly to the White House. Further, to their shock, they connected the dots to Nixon and the Oval Office.
Watching the film today, seeing these men research without the internet, with no cell phones, tablets, computers or laptops is an extraordinary experience because we begin to understand the magnitude of their accomplishments. No one, in the beginning, would talk to them and clearly, White House staff and government workers were terrified.
One brilliant scene sticks forever in mind. The two reporters go to the Library of Congress, one of those beautiful white buildings in Washington, D.C. and begin going through index cards to find a name. Sitting at a desk, there are literally thousands of cards for them to check, and as they do the camera rises above them, higher, higher and yet higher until they look like insects foraging for food against impossible odds.
If not for their courage, and the bravery and integrity of Ben Bradlee (Jason Robards), editor of the Washington Post, the story might have been buried, never connected to Nixon and history would have been much different. A newsman himself, Bradlee believed in his boys because he understood their gut feeling that this was going to be bigger than anyone imagined. Did Bradlee too have a gut feeling of the seismic impact this story would have? Very likely, which is why he risked the reputation of his paper, and why he pushed the two reporters to get it right, there was no room for error. One misstep, one misquote and the thing came tumbling down.
We watch as “Woodstein”, the name the two became known as, interview, search, write and rewrite, have their lives threatened and turned upside down as they seek that connection. Finally, they catch a break, an insider who works close to the Oval Office, who calls himself Deep Throat (Hal Holbrook) and who will not give direct answers but gently guides Woodward. They meet in parking garages, and it becomes clear to Woodward that Deep Throat is scared, as frightened as the two reporters, and when finally pushed by a frustrated Woodward, tells all. Years later we learn that Deep Throat was in fact, a high ranking operative, Mark Felt, who acted out of patriotism.
In the offices of the Post, the two men pound out their story on manual typewriters as they listen to Nixon being sworn in for a second term.
Robert Redford bought the rights to the book Woodward and Bernstein wrote about bringing down Nixon before the book was even published. The actor, a major box office star at the time, was looking to make topical films that would matter. Serving as producer for the film his single greatest move was hiring Alan J. Pakula to direct, giving him free reign. William Goldman took the book and adapted it for the screen, making sense of the countless pages of complicated information, names and events, turning the book into one of the greatest screenplay adaptations of all time.
Then Pakula went to work.
Redford was cast as Woodward, Dustin Hoffman as Carl Bernstein which brought some box office clout to the film. Some of the finest character actors in movies were cast including Jason Robards, Martin Balsam,
An exact replica of the Post newsman rooms and editorial offices were created in LA, right down to the waste paper in the baskets being paper discarded in the real Post offices.
But the finest move Pakula made was realizing he had the makings of a true suspense film, a thriller. He needed to overcome the hurdle that the audience knew the outcome going in, they knew how this all ended. However they did not know how the story came to the two men, their research in connecting the dots, the fact their apartments might be bugged, and that their lives were in danger so Pakula focused not on what happened once the story ended, but how the two reporters broke the story and how they did so beyond reproach.
In doing this Pakula created the greatest film about journalism, pure journalism ever made. Even today with exceptional films like Zodiac (2007), Reds (1981) and The Post (2017) exploring journalism, All the President’s Men (1976) towers over them. It was in so many ways a classic David vs. Goliath story, only true, with consequences that altered the United States.
Pakula’s precise, taut direction gave the film a great edge, managing to build suspense within a film whose story was already part of modern history. It is a quiet film, and that hushed quality brought to the film great intensity, allowing the audience to experience what the reporters must have gone through. Every single directorial decision he made was perfect, his direction was flawless, his film perfection. Though he made great films before, Klute (1971), and after, Sophie’s Choice (1982), this remains his masterpiece, the work he is best known for.
Very much an ensemble piece for actors, there were no stars in this. If any one actor stood out it was Jason Robards for his tough as nails editor who stands by his boys because his own sense tells him they are right. Redford and Hoffman superbly blend in with the cast, they are each outstanding in their role.
The film opened in the spring of 1976 to rave reviews and surprisingly good box office. At year’s end it won Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Supporting Actor Awards from both the National Society of Film Critics and the New York Film Critics Circle. With cover stories in Time and Newsweek, the film was nominated for eight Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay Adaptation and Best Supporting Actor. The Best Picture category was stuffed with brilliant films with urgent stories that gave the movies an immediacy. Joining All the President’s Men in the Best Picture category were Bound for Glory, Rocky and two more for the ages, Network and Taxi Driver.
Oddly Rocky won out.
All the President’s Men did very well winning four Academy Awards in all, with William Goldman richly deserving his award for his perfect screenplay. Robards won Best Supporting Actor and the film took two other awards, Best Production Design,
The great enemy of film, time, has not touched All the President’s Men, as it remains as urgent, as vital and important a film as it was when first released. Brilliant in every way, an absolute masterpiece.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.