All the President's Men (Directed by Alan Pakula, 1976)
All the President’s Men would become known as the capstone in Pakula’s “paranoid trilogy”, following Klute (1971) and The Parallax View (1974). The films share more than paranoia, although pervasive surveillance is an important motif in all three films. The ubiquitous rotating wheels of tape recorders in Kluteanticipate the White House tapes that would provide the “smoking gun” of Nixon’s crimes. The three movies also reflect a basic suspicion about bedrock American institutions, subtly, in the form of small town values and corporate ethics in Klute; more explicitly in Parallax, a nightmarish inversion of the Watergate story, where the crusading reporter is defeated in his attempts to expose the vast conspiracy and government cover-ups.
All three films were shot by seventies virtuoso Gordon Willis, who had draped the first two entries in his signature darkness. In All the President’s Men, that darkness, most famously in the garage scenes featuring Hal Holbrook’s inimitable incarnation of Deep Throat, are contrasted by the piercing brightness of the Washington Post’s newsroom. In the newsroom, truth reigns, a clarity of vision subtly emphasized by the innovative use of a diopter (bifocal) lens, portraying both foreground and background in crystal clear focus. Under the watchful eye of Editor Ben Bradlee (via Jason Robards’ Oscar-winning portrayal) the plain truths of the newsroom are contrasted with the shadowy, corrupt politics of the Nixon Administration.
In that sense the film, with its underdog heroes doggedly pursuing the bad guys until finally, by dint of their efforts and resourcefulness, good triumphs over evil, might suggest the comfort of a classic Hollywood tale. But All the President’s Men was very much a “seventies film”, a product of the times, and thus stepped in the inescapable moral ambiguities favored by the artists of the period. The crackerjack script by William Goldman (revised modestly or in whole cloth, depending on which account you believe, by Redford and Pakula) is more shaded than it first appears. With each viewing, Dustin Hoffman’s Carl Bernstein and Redford’s Woodward seem increasingly ambitious, manipulative, and even ruthless in their pursuit of the story. At the same time, Nixon Campaign treasurer Hugh Sloan, and even dirty-tricks maestro Don Segretti are portrayed as casualties of circumstance – collateral damage of the larger investigation. The real bad guys like Ziegler, Agnew, Nixon, are not hauled in front of the audience, but held a dispassionate distance away, seen only on TV.
Thirty years later, All the President’s Men is still a treat to watch, but now comes across not as a triumph of the good, but as a bittersweet counter-culture story. What distinguished Woodward and Bernstein at the time, and in the movie, was that they were young, raw, and occasionally clueless (early on, Woodward doesn't even know "how high up" one of his White House sources is). But that inexperience led them to pursue a story that more polished professionals would not touch. “A dangerous story for this paper”, the Post’surbane foreign editor warns Bradlee at one point. Dangerous in part because high-powered journalists become enmeshed in the Washington establishment, their reputations and stories dependent on privileged access to power-brokers. Woodward and Bernstein, the ultimate outsiders (“remember when you were hungry?”) with nothing, had nothing to lose. In 1976 that was a great story. In 2006 it’s still a great story, but with the passage of time, a story with a different ending. Deep Throat isn’t Hal Holbrook, pin spotlights on his eyes, able to disappear at the first sound of a squealing tire; he’s ninety year old Mark Felt, one time embittered number two man at the FBI. And Bob Woodward is the ultimate insider.
Jonathan Kirshner Cornell University kirshner@Princeton.EDU