President Richard Nixon was re-elected in 1972 to his second term by one of the greatest landslides in the history of the United States Presidency. One of the most controversial Presidents in American history, it is my opinion that over the course of history Nixon will come to be recognized as a great President. In many ways, it has already begun to happen. Each and every President that followed Nixon sought his advice and counsel on matters of foreign policy, and when he died all living Presidents attended his funeral as a tribute to a man who become known as a great statesmen. What a shame that two years after being re-elected to a second term by such a massive majority of votes, Nixon resigned in disgrace over the Watergate affair.
Two reporters from the Washington Post were assigned to a story about a break in at the Watergate Hotel in Washington D.C. Their findings led them to believe that the break-in was connected to the highest office in the land, and slowly they began piecing the story together, hitting dead ends, find witnesses that then vanished, and guided gently by an inside spy known only as Deep Throat. The writers, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein were dogged in their attempts to find where the story led, though they always believed Nixon was involved, even though the editor of the newspaper, Ben Bradlee was nervous in the beginning at where “the boys” were going with the writing. In the end he stood by them and their story changed the face of the United States of America in the seventies, led to the resignation of a recently re-elected President and led to a sense of mistrust that exists to this day.
Their book, All the President’s Men is a superb chronological breakdown of the manner in which they uncovered the Watergate scandal and attached it to Nixon. Robert Redford, looking to branch out as an artist bought the rights to the book and commissioned a screenplay from Oscar winning writer William Goldman. Redford then hired director Alan J. Pakula to direct the film and gave himself over to the director in the role of Woodward. He hired Dustin Hoffman to portray cocky Carl Bernstein and the production company launched on making a film that would
explore recent history. Why would the North American public want to see a film about Watergate? We saw the proceedings on television, why on earth would we pay to see a film about the events?
Yes we saw the proceedings on television, but did anyone at the time aside from government insiders understand what the hell was going on? I didn’t!! Our teachers rolled in TV sets (in Canada) and we watched, wondering why we were watching this boring material. Why a movie??
Pakula and Redford had other ideas. They each believed, along with writer Goldman that the story of the how the reporters cracked the case was a detective thriller, with the reporters sometimes fearful not only for their reputations but for their lives. This was not merely a company they were threatening to bring down but the government of the most powerful nation on the world. Pakula in particular gave the film its tone, bringing to the picture a startling accuracy, capturing every small detail of the story, making sense of the events and happenings, and along with the superb performances, made it exciting.
This was a film about two men who stumbled onto the story of their lives, perhaps the greatest story of the 20th century and despite being turned away constantly, despite being told they were crazy, that the story went nowhere, they kept going. They believed something was terribly wrong, that something had happened and it led directly to the White House, Everything in their being told them so, and they followed that lead, doing what good journalists do, trusting themselves when no one else would.
All the President’s Men was a film that made investigative journalism exciting, breathtaking even. Given the feel of a political thriller, the director tells the story of how Woodward and Bernstein, dubbed Woodstein followed every lead, nomatter how small to bring down Nixon. In the days before the Internet and Google, reporters of this age, got down and dirty in their research, at one point flipping through thousands of library cards at the Library of Congress to find out who had a book on loan. They meet witnesses in darkened parking lots, have hundreds of doors shut in their faces, and find that what someone says one day they are not willing to say the next. In one stunning sequence they interview a woman who is terrified for her life, and she quietly reveals to them that they should indeed be frightened as well. The sequence in the Library of Congress gives a metaphorical idea of what they were up against, as the camera pulls up higher and ever higher to show the two men in a massive building, at war with a system that controlled everything around them. Yet they persevere and finally Bradlee comes to them with the front page and the full support of the Washington Post.
The detail brought to the film by director Pakula was astounding, from the stunning recreation of the Post Offices on a Hollywood soundstage, through to the crowded apartments of the reporters, Pakula made a film that was often dangerously close to documentary, the only thing keeping it from being so was the narrative being performed by actors. Hoffman and Redford were superb, but Jason Robards as Ben Bradlee was a revelation giving the performance of his lifetime. He captured the essence that was Bradlee, the confidence of the editor, the concern of the man who answers to those above him, and the man whose neck is on the line more than anyone’s should his reporters be wrong. Bradlee had more to lose than anyone, and perhaps less to gain; his sticking with the boys was an act of loyalty that proved to be a historical decision.
The film was met with rave reviews, not a single complaint about the subject matter or the manner in which it as presented. The National Society of Film Critics and the New York Film Critics named it Best Film with Pakula winning Director, Robards grabbing Supporting Actor and Goldman earning honors for his superb screenplay, which carefully pieced together the chaos of Watergate. The veteran actor Robards, basking in the best reviews of his career won several critics for his performance, and finally lived up to the promise he had shown as a young actor on the Broadway stage.
Nominated for eight Academy Awards, the film collected four, including Best Supporting Actor, Best Screenplay Adaptation, Best Art Direction and Best Sound, losing Best Picture to the Cinderella story boxing flick Rocky (1976) which had the distinction of defeating at least three films vastly superior to it, All the President’s Men, being first, followed by Network (1976) and Taxi Diver (1976). Its place in film history is secure, given the brilliant direction from Pakula, and the superb script from Goldman which to this day remains one of the best adaptations ever put on film.
A timely film, extraordinary in the courage it took to bring the work to the screen, the film remains a testament to a time when the films coming out of Hollywood meant something and were truly about something. All the President’s Men is a great American film, one of the very best ever made.