The Washington Beat: ‘All the President’s Men’, 40 Years On

     April 8, 2016


The director Alan J. Pakula had helmed four films by the time the offer to direct All the President’s Men arrived on his desk. Two of them, Klute and The Parallax View, were very well received but were not the kind of films that everyone sees, from your grandfather on down to the woman that makes your coffee; his debut, The Sterile Cuckoo, is often ignored but deserves equal footing with these more regularly noted works. Pakula was clearly talented from the moment he lensed his first feature, but like so many other New Hollywood icons, nationwide recognition didn’t come until he took on the story of one of the great con jobs perpetrated on the American people, namely the Watergate scandal.


Image via Warner Bros.

Of course, All the President’s Men is not primarily about the crimes that led to President Richard Nixon resigning from his office in utter disgrace, but rather the writing of the story that helped uncover these rampant misdeeds. The two men who wrote the story, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein (Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, respectively), were relative neophytes to the big-time newspaper game when they, backed by the Washington Post, began digging into the story of the five men who were caught breaking into the DNC office at the Watergate hotel. The fact that the film focuses so intently on the procedural work that these two men do to prove themselves, and to write one of the most important pieces of journalism in the history of the medium and, ultimately, the book that gives this film its name, slyly reflects the deliberate, challenging work that goes into creating a film as inarguably involving, intimate, and entertaining as Pakula’s newsroom drama.

There isn’t much talk of movies in the film itself, but the power of the camera is referred to more than once. In one of the most telling shots of the movie, Pakula creates a kind of split shot with a television, on which Nixon’s acceptance of his second nomination from the RNC is seen, taking up most of the screen with just a sliver of an out-of-focus Woodward at work seen. In this shot, one can sense both Pakula’s distrust of TV, and television news, but also expresses a thorough knowledge of how quickly the printed page was losing ground to the so-called boob tube. One of the last shots of the film is in fact a revisiting of this shot, with the television on slightly more equal footing with the busy Washington Post newsroom, but its not dwarfed in size or turned off, suggesting that Woodward and Bernstein’s work may have reasserted the power of the paper but would never overcome the imagery that TV news utilizes so strategically.

In another moment, the locating of a potentially crucial source, Kenneth H. Dahlberg, comes not from an old news story or witness but rather via a caption on a photo of the Republican donor. The finding and securing of sources, testimonies, and hints is what makes up most of the film’s narrative, and it’s in the tactics and performances that Woodward and Bernstein put into these acts that gives the most potent sense of how Pakula and screenwriter William Goldman came to make this film. On rare occasions, the sheer fact that the men are reporters gets them into the right room or gets a potential witness to open up, but, understandably, the subject of their investigation and basic distrust of reporters causes people to button up. What gets people to ultimately speak with them, though often in code or gesticulation, is the charm of their personalities, their abilities to read people and situations, and in their skilled creative sides.


Image via Warner Bros.

When Woodward first meets with his secretive source, nicknamed Deep Throat (Hal Holbrook), he relies on a series of visual notifications and particular modes of outsmarting anyone who might be following him. And when Bernstein is being blown off by Martin Dardis (Ned Beatty), the chief investigator for the Dade County state attorney and a crucial figure in linking Dahlberg to the funds paid to the Watergate burglars, the reporter calls Dardis’ secretary and acts as if he’s a colleague to get her away from her desk so he can sneak into the investigator’s office. Beyond even these bigger “tricks,” however, it’s the way that they get personal with strangers, or with colleagues that they’re not particularly close to otherwise, that yields their biggest revelations.

There’s a wonderful, enveloping scene about halfway through the film where Woodward and Bernstein press a friendly writer at the Post, Kay Eddy (Lindsay Crouse), to use her former romance with a man from the RNC. Bernstein, the more stubborn and pestering of the two, picks at her incessantly, even when she begins to tear up over the thought of using her former loved one, but then Woodward quickly regains his humanity and makes him back off. It’s a moment that speaks to the unsaid requisite for reporters to have sensitivity and care for other people and to have a sharply honed intuition.

This is just as important in reading people who they know are lying, most of whom work for the RNC or Nixon’s White House. Early on in the film, Woodward notes that one person he called “volunteered that he was innocent when no one asked if he was guilty,” and more times than not, the reporters’ hunches come from the ability of a great liar to notice a terrible liar, to spot a contretemps when it’s presented. This ultimately also connects with Pakula’s common thematic fascination with political corruption and paranoia, which was just as potently mined in The Parallax View and later on in Presumed Innocent and The Pelican Brief, the latter arguably being the best of all the John Grisham adaptations. As much as its professional drive and ambition that brings Woodward and Bernstein to follow the story all the way down the bunny hole, they’re also pulled along by an unshakeable feeling that they’re being lied to by the government, that they’re being purposefully toyed with by the powers that be.


Image via Warner Bros.

These feelings also come into play when the reporters must deal with their higher-ups, such as Jack Warden’s Harry Rosenfeld and Martin Balsam’s Howard Simons. Above both of those characters, however, is Ben Bradlee, played with dry wit and no-bullshit candor by Jason Robards, who is the person that they really need to convince that they should keep researching and eventually print the piece, and their arguments again allude to Pakula’s experiences with Hollywood suits. Robards’ character often asks, “What’s the story?” when talking with the reporters, and one can imagine both Goldman and Pakula sitting in a room with a studio head or a producer having to convince them that the story of two reporters researching and writing an article is a story worthy of the Warner Bros. seal.

By keeping both the shooting style and writing relatively sober, lacking in major expressive flourishes of imagination, the writer and director stress the work that goes into something so major, but also highlight the obsession that infects these men, their compulsion to keep pushing and searching. They don’t have girlfriends, they don’t have friends, and they don’t seem to eat much, but they are pulled by a need to find something like the truth. It’s telling then that the most iconic shot of the film is a pullout overhead shot that opens up into a god’s eye perspective while the reporters look over some early papers and logs in a governmental library. This image not only reflects the breadth of the story that they will write, and how small they are within the view of an all-powerful government, but also a consuming, overwhelming need to settle a feeling that there’s a story in these bits of information that no one but them can really tell.


Image via Warner Bros.


Image via Warner Bros.

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