Conspiracy Thrillers

All the President’s Men Is a Superhero Flick for Journalists

How do you keep an audience interested when the entire country knows how the story turns out?

Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford in All the President’s Men.

Photo illustration by Slate. Image via Warner Bros.

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“Even before the outcome of Watergate was clear,” Robert Redford said on the set of All the President’s Men, “I thought there was a good story in how Carl and Bob were investigating Watergate.” It was just a natural. The old Hollywood’s history of infatuation with newspapering met the new Hollywood’s detestation of Nixon. Best of all, there was the way the story mirrored—no, demonstrated—the film industry’s most cherished beliefs about how happy endings can coexist with, and even triumph over, unhappy realities. The very title All the President’s Men, while ostensibly alluding to Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men (and, at an additional remove, “Humpty Dumpty”), also communicates a sense of great and powerful forces arrayed against its author heroes. As Alan J. Pakula, the film’s director, told one of Woodward and Bernstein’s Washington Post colleagues, “It’s inherent in the story of Carl and Bob that they have become a kind of contemporary myth” whose experience affirms “that American belief that a person or small group can with perseverance and hard work and obsessiveness take on a far more powerful, impersonal body and win—if they have truth on their side.”

The most celebrated shot in All the President’s Men is the slow reverse zoom showing Redford (as Woodward) and Dustin Hoffman (as Bernstein) sifting through records at the Library of Congress. The film’s now-legendary cinematographer, Gordon Willis, had reservations. Pakula insisted. “I had to figure it out on paper,” Willis later said. “But it worked fine.” Fine is a no small understatement. As the camera draws back to offer a God’s-eye view from beneath the library dome, the two reporters get lost among the crowd of researchers in the reading room. The viewer is meant to see the loneliness of Woodward and Bernstein’s search for the truth. In fact, the shot might equally well suggest how Woodward and Bernstein were simply two among many pursuing the truth behind Watergate: initially, not many reporters, to be sure, but numerous FBI agents, Justice Department officials, and, later, Senate investigators, members of the special prosecutor’s office, and House Judiciary staffers. “How can we enforce a subpoena?” mused a judiciary member, California Democrat Don Edwards, of Nixon’s power. “He has a bigger army than we do.”

By the time Nixon flew off in disgrace to San Clemente, the legend of the heroic and indispensable role of the press in foiling him was the accepted version of what had happened—a version whose acceptance was helped not a little by the phenomenal response to All the President’s Men. Published three months before Nixon’s resignation, it became the fastest-selling nonfiction hardcover in U.S. history. Two years later, the film version was released and went on to become the fifth highest-grossing movie of 1976, win four Academy Awards, and, in the opinion of no less an authority than Ronald Reagan, ensure Gerald Ford’s defeat at the hands of Jimmy Carter. Even so well informed an observer as the New Republic’s John Osborne, probably the most respected and influential reporter covering the Nixon White House, could describe Woodward and Bernstein as having done more than “any officials did to expose the evil of Watergate and drive Richard Nixon from the presidency.”

The point isn’t the legend’s truth but its persuasiveness. As a newspaper editor tells James Stewart’s U.S. senator in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, “This is the West, sir, and when fact becomes legend, we print the legend!” The legend of the crusading reporter, enshrined in dozens of movies of the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s, was what Nixon had bumped up against and one of the reasons he could never get ahead on Watergate was precisely this: Once it became apparent that the newspapers really were onto something, people instinctively felt they already knew the story—and Nixon had to be the bad guy. Just as Watergate was the logical moral climax to Nixon’s career—the man who saw enemies in so many places finally became one to himself—so, too, was it the logical Hollywood climax. The good guys—or at least the likable guys—were the ones behind the typewriters. To Richard Nixon’s dark, dour, disingenuous matter, the Hollywood image of journalists was absolute, annihilating antimatter. “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid Bring Down the Government” was the way one Post editor described the first draft of William Goldman’s screenplay, which isn’t far off as a description of the final version. In real life, as on screen, how could the public not go for something like that?

Yet as can’t-miss as the subject might have seemed at first, the actual storytelling mechanics made it, “at best, a dubious project,” as Goldman wearily recalls. How do you keep an audience interested when “people were sick to fucking death of Watergate” (Goldman again) and literally everyone in the country knows how your story turns out? You do it in three ways—all of them, as it happens, further conducing to the journalistic legend of Watergate. First, you turn the reporters into cops in drag and make a movie that’s a police procedural by other means. (Warner Bros.’ ad campaign billed All the President’s Men as “the most devastating detective story of the century.”) Second, you emphasize mood and technique for all they’re worth. Third, you play up the least-familiar part of the story and those particulars they don’t already know: the newsroom part of the story and the figure of Deep Throat.

It’s because All the President’s Men is so obsessed with skirting the edges of the much-larger narrative that inspires it, trying at once to remain true to the Watergate scenario while also keeping it fresh, that the film remains so much smaller and less resonant than that story. This is one instance where the truth is incalculably stranger than the fiction, and none of its many virtues can keep All the President’s Men from suffering the consequences.

Enlarging the human element would have been the one obvious way to make the film more artistically ambitious. Yet this model of scrupulous, intelligent filmmaking is as uninterested in the development of its characters—of either good guys or bad—as the cheapest exploitation quickie. With the bad guys, in fact, that approach isn’t even an option. The title would seem to imply that All the President’s Men is about Nixon’s side. It’s not, of course, and one of Goldman’s canniest inspirations is to consistently represent administration figures obliquely: in news footage, in television interviews, or on the telephone. Besides helping simplify what is already a very complicated story, this device makes the Nixon people appear all the more distant and unnatural. It also creates a larger sense of isolation around Woodward and Bernstein as they pursue the story. It’s as if they’re moving in a vacuum and chasing phantoms. Not only does this make their task seem all the more difficult; it imparts a vague spookiness to their labors (a contributing factor in the film’s impressive ability to maintain its atmosphere of low-key paranoia). Even for legends in the making, it’s hard to know if you’re onto something when the people you’re chasing seem to consist only of disembodied voices and video images.

The film is just as put off by the inner workings of its heroes. That axiomatic Hollywood principle, action is character, takes a strange turn in All the President’s Men. The Woodward and Bernstein we get to see—so dutiful, so serious—are Butch and Sundance gelded. It wasn’t as if Woodward and Bernstein and the Post were out to get the president and his men (the party line of Nixon apologists). They don’t bring down the government out of any animus. They don’t even do it because it’s fun. (The only person in All the President’s Men who ever seems to be enjoying himself is Jason Robards’ Ben Bradlee.) They bring down the government because it’s a great story, and getting great stories is their job.

Even bearing in mind what’s at stake, there’s something just a little too intense about this pair. Everything about Woodward and Bernstein in their screen incarnation is so straight and sober, one comes to pine for at least their Mutt & Jeff mismatchedness being played for a laugh. Instead, Redford’s Nordic cool gets mixed with Hoffman’s Jewish heat to keep things at an unwavering room temperature. Poor Hoffman, even with that gorgeous mane of hair and nifty crooked grin, can only hint at what a rascal his character could be in real life. And it’s not as if Redford, far from the most expressive of male stars, needs help in toning down a characterization. Just in case, though, the movie has him driving around in a Volvo—and an early-model Volvo, at that—whereas in the book Woodward owns a Karmann Ghia. It’s a strange state of affairs when a film’s most raffish character, Bradlee, is a Boston Brahmin. Not surprisingly, Robards walks away with the picture. “I hate trusting anybody,” he growls at one point, revealing a gleam of the old newspaper movie spirit.

What’s so charismatic about journalism here isn’t its practitioners (Bradlee once again excepted); it’s the idea of journalism. The epitome of that idea is the film’s justly famed opening: a close-up of bond paper, its overpowering whiteness implicitly contrasted with the darkness in the Democratic National Committee offices during the burglary we will soon see re-enacted. The shot produces an almost unbearable tension. It’s held for 18 seconds before there’s any action, a keystroke, its impact resounding like cannon fire. The stage is thus set for the rest of the movie, which ends with actual cannon fire (at Nixon’s second inaugural) and a series of close-ups of major Watergate stories being printed out on a Teletype machine. What we will see for the next two hours and 19 minutes is a display of the power of the word and, something utterly new to the newspaper movie genre, the purity of the word.

The creamy whiteness of that paper is so different in appearance from the six-ply copy journalists used in the days of hot type. But it’s intended to presage the glaring illumination of the Post newsroom. Along with Deep Throat’s beloved parking garages, it’s one of the film’s two moral centers: each of them large, open, windowless spaces that are almost unnerving in the artificial brightness of their lighting. These are the outposts of truth under the Nixon dispensation. If anything, the fluorescent-lit newsroom is the scarier looking of the two. It’s like a laboratory or hospital ward, always shiny and vaguely antiseptic, almost comically unlike the dim and dusty proto-noir newsrooms of the “Sweetheart, get me rewrite” era. It speaks volumes that the filmmakers made such a fetish of the site, constructing a $450,000 replica on two soundstages at the Warner Bros. studio in Burbank, California, its wastebaskets filled with tons of trash taken from the actual Post newsroom. All the President’s Men belongs in this setting not just because it’s the site of most of the events in the film. It belongs there because so right thinking and public-spirited and ultimately unimaginative a work seems utterly at home in such a setting.

The lidless-eye look of the Post newsroom lends All the President’s Men a slightly sinister cast, as if it had started out as a science-fiction movie, then lost its nerve. Such remorseless illumination communicated a far different meaning at the time. Conveying reassurance and fidelity to the truth, it answered the equally unrelieved darkness directed against the republic by the president and his henchmen. What better antidote for paranoia than glare? It deprives enemies of any shadows to lurk in. And make no mistake, paranoia runs like a black thread throughout the movies of this period. Its unremitting shine makes the Post newsroom a lonely island of light in the dark sea of ’70s cinema, an environment in which the Nixon administration’s mania for suspicion and conspiracy found its mirror image.

When Paul Schrader predicted at the beginning of 1972 that “as the current political mood hardens, filmgoers and filmmakers will find the film noir of the late ’40s increasingly attractive,” even he could not have imagined how accurate he would be. The decade’s great contribution to Hollywood genre, the paranoid thriller was noir minus the sex and with substantially more darkness. It drew on the cynicism and sense of menace of the earlier genre, as well as the topicality and shock value of the many disillusioning events culminating in Watergate to proffer an all-too-plausible vision of modern life as something dominated by a global cartel of conspiracy.

In countless ways, the paranoid thriller helped color a generation and more of filmmakers who for too many years had seen sinister manipulation revealed and their worst suspicions confirmed. As Warren Beatty tells Paula Prentiss in The Parallax View, “People were crazy for any kind of explanation then. Every time you turned around, some nut was knocking off one of the best men in the country.”

Reprinted with permission from Nixon at the Movies: A Book About Belief by Mark Feeney, published by the University of Chicago Press. © 2004 by the University of Chicago. All rights reserved.