“If you’re gonna do it, do it right. If you’re gonna hype it, hype it with the facts.”
I first saw All the President’s Men back in high school in an American History course. I always found the Watergate investigation fascinating, primarily because of the scale of the situation. Two guys at the Washington Post, through a series of impeccable journalistic work, forced the resignation of the most powerful man in the world. The 1976 film has a lot of strengths, but I feel like its most noteworthy feature is how well it conveys this sense of scale. The desperate, grueling process by Woodward and Bernstein is presented with suspense and excitement to the viewer, and you really get a sense of the weight that this process held and the impossible odds that these guys had to face. It’s a powerful piece of American history, and the film gives it full justice with a precise direction by Alan J. Pakula.
Based on the book by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, All the President’s Men follows the true story of the Watergate investigation from the perspective of the two leading journalists who broke the story. Specifically, the film covers the early part of the process, from the discovery of the break-in at the Watergate Hotel to the publishing of the story that would lead to further investigation and President Nixon’s resignation. We get to see Woodward and Bernstein (Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, respectively) take on leading figures in this grand conspiracy which stretches all the way to the top of the White House. We see them struggle to get information and struggle even harder to get information that can be published, following admirable journalistic practices while attempting to get this unprecedented story printed. It’s a gripping mystery that somehow surprises you constantly, even if you’re already familiar with the story.
The obvious comparison would be Spotlight, this year’s Best Picture winner which follows a similar tale of arduous journalistic process in pursuit of the truth. There’s clear inspiration taken from All the President’s Men in such a film – the narrowing in on the interview process and the constant frustration of dealing with hesitant sources. There’s also a greater spirit that runs through both of these films: an inspiring sense of justice that helps you root for the journalists. Particularly in recent times when the free press can feel like a commercialized circus of falsities and spectacle, it’s these stories that we turn to for guidance on the true role of a journalist: to seek the truth, the important truth, and report it accurately. I was pleasantly surprised Spotlight nabbed Best Picture this year, in part for this reason. It’s an incredibly relevant story that we need to hold up as an example of the type of journalism we need to see more of. (It’s also wildly entertaining to watch.) All the President’s Men also got the Best Picture nomination in 1977 itself, but lost out to Rocky, a fine film on its own right but not as great as many of its competitors in my opinion. (Taxi Driver and Network were also up for Best Picture, mind you.) In any case, I don’t think a well-done journalism film will ever cease to entertain me. They’re sharp, engaging, mysterious, and undoubtedly important, and All the President’s Men is among the best.
I mentioned earlier the sense of scale you find present in All the President’s Men, and I think this sets the film apart from similar titles for me. Pakula is cleverly aware of the impact that every action in the film is going to have on American history, but he also plays with how insignificant or even silly these actions seem to appear. We get shots of Woodward and Bernstein walking down the street conversing, but the camera will pan out to show the entire skyline of the city, making them appear small and helpless against the political machine they’re combating. Or perhaps these shots foreshadow the widespread implications of simple acts of smart journalism, suggesting that these pursuits are worth fighting for. Either way, the camerawork is clever and thought-provoking, and Pakula manages to say a lot about the significance of these two men and their story in a truly subtle way through his cinematography alone.
While the film first and foremost seeks to tell the Watergate story, which it does with surprising clarity for just 2 hours of screen time, there’s also a bit of character study which the script explores. We get to see Dustin Hoffman portray a more experienced, clever journalist in the form of Carl Bernstein. He often outsmarts his interview subjects, clearly adept at maneuvering his way through a system that would attempt to shut him out. Hoffman also manages to find a warm amount of humor amidst the gravity of such a dramatic story. Woodward (Redford), on the other hand, seems to hold a more gung-ho, optimistic take on the American journalist. It’s endlessly entertaining to see Robert Redford piece together information with enthusiasm and excitement as he attempts to print such an important story. The two actors have an impeccable chemistry which reflects the comradery that this sort of work will brew. While the film didn’t have to be about Woodward and Bernstein, the screenplay takes a welcome approach of exploring the subtleties of the men and their relationship, which adds another fun layer to the viewing experience.
I’d certainly consider All the President’s Men a classic piece of cinematic storytelling and a milestone of the genre. The subject matter is of paramount importance, and this is a story that begs to be brought to the screen, but Pakula truly brings the investigation the importance it deserves in cinematic form. Every second of this movie is gripping and suspenseful, and it brings insight into how difficult it actually was to uncover this type of story against all odds. Films such as this should take a familiar piece of history and convey far more than the audience thought they knew about the subject. Through the impressive cinematography, sharp script, and fascinating exploration of details, All the President’s Men delivers on all fronts, and it stands as the perfect model for what a reporter film should look like.
Films Left to Watch: 908