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“All The President’s Men” – Journalism in Classic Film Blogathon

September 22, 2013

This is my contribution to the “Journalism In Classic Film” Blogathon, hosted by Jessica (Comet Over Hollywood) and Lindsay (Lindsay’s Movie Musings).

This November marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy (by coincidence, the anniversary falls on the same day of the week as the original event). While it may be overstating the case to say we as a country lost its innocence that day (there’s an argument to be made we were never really innocent in the first place, but that’s a whole other discussion), it’s certainly the case something in us as a nation changed, and even died, that day. Furthermore, the assassination was only the first in a series of events that led a sizable portion of the country to become disillusioned with the government – including the assassinations of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, the Vietnam War, and riots across the country. Whether Watergate was the event that caused the most cynicism about our government (and our country as a whole) or not, it was the final nail in the coffin as far as many people were concerned. The book and movie All the President’s Men, however, were both as much about the two young reporters who broke and stayed on the story as it was about the original break-in and resulting cover-up that became known as Watergate. In fact, star/producer Robert Redford pitched the story to Warner Brothers as a detective story (with reporters instead of police or private detectives), and that’s pretty accurate to the movie’s approach.

Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman), Bob Woodward (Robert Redford), Ben Bradlee (Jason Robards), Harry Rosenfeld (Jack Warden) and Howard Simons (Martin Balsam) watch as their story, and maybe their credibility, goes down the toilet.

The two reporters in question, both at the Washington Post, were Bob Woodward (Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman). When the break-in at the Democratic Party headquarters at the Watergate Hotel occurred the night of June 17, 1972, Woodward and Bernstein were hardly the well-known figures they are today. Both of them were in their late 20’s; Woodward had come out of Yale and had only been at the paper for a few months, while Bernstein had been working there since he was 16, starting as a copy boy. Woodward had recently done a series of articles on the attempted assassination of George Wallace (after mostly doing police stories), while Bernstein had covered several local stories. However, neither of them had written anything with the scope Watergate proved to have.

At the time, of course, it wasn’t considered much of a story. The five burglars may have seemed strange at their arraignment hearing – when asked what their occupation was, they all said they were anti-Communists – and James McCord, one of the burglars, once worked at the CIA, which piqued Woodward’s interest. But there was a feeling this was, as managing editor Howard Simons (Martin Balsam) put it, just “crazy Cubans” (all of the burglars except McCord were Cuban). And even though there turned out to be more to the story – McCord was connected to Howard Hunt (also ex-CIA), who worked for Charles Colson, special counsel to President Nixon; this in turn led to a slush fund with the Committee to RE-Elect the President (CREEP) that was controlled by former attorney general John Mitchell – it seemed to many as if Woodward, Bernstein, city editor Harry Rosenfeld (Jack Warden) and executive editor Ben Bradlee (Jason Robards) were making a mountain out of a molehill. After all, Nixon was expected to win re-election in a walk, especially since George McGovern, whom Republicans considered to be the weakest Democrat candidate, was the prohibitive favorite to be the party’s nominee for President; plus, the Democrats seemed to be self-destructing on their own. Not only that, but Woodward and Bernstein were rarely, if ever, able to get someone to go on the record – Woodward’s most valuable source, whom Simons nicknamed “Deep Throat” (Hal Holbrook), gave Woodward information, and tried to steer him in the right direction, but refused to serve as anything other than deep background – and at the time, that was a sure way not to get your story taken seriously. Finally, while other papers such as the New York Times would pick up on the story, much of the White House press corps at the time thought what the Republicans were doing (at least, what they could see) was no different from what Democrats were doing. For the last half of 1972, the Post was known as the Watergate paper, and that wasn’t considered a compliment. It wasn’t until Woodward and Bernstein (as well as, to be fair, government investigators and other reporters such as Seymour Hersh) were able to show how deep the “dirty tricks” of Watergate ran (what was originally thought to be the Democratic Party self-destructing turned out in many cases to be Republican sabotage), as well as the cover-up of those tricks (which could be tied to the White House) that the Post, and Woodward and Bernstein, were taken seriously.

Jane Alexander as The Bookkeeper.

One person who did take the story seriously early on was Redford. According to the book Alan J. Pakula: His Films and His Life, by Jared Brown, Redford was the one who convinced Woodward and Bernstein to tell the story from their point of view (originally, they were going to tell it from the point of view of the burglars). As stated above, Redford saw (and pitched) the movie as a detective story, and one of the striking aspects of the film is how much Redford, credited writer William Goldman (more on that later) and director Alan J. Pakula focus on the legwork Woodward and Bernstein did in reporting on the case and trying to follow the story. There are many scenes of the two of them, alone or together, in the newspaper office on the phone with someone, painstakingly going through records – particularly when they try to interview members of CREEP, and go over the list to see who they’ve missed – and interviewing other sources outside the office. Originally, Redford saw this as a low-budget movie, with Woodward and Bernstein being played by unknowns, but even though that proved to be impossible – Warner Brothers insisted Redford play Woodward, and only Hoffman and Al Pacino were big enough names and the same physical resemblance as Bernstein (when Redford finally called Hoffman, Hoffman reportedly replied, “What took you so long?”) – the movie takes pains to show how outside the loop they were. This gets demonstrated both with the dialogue (while Bradlee and Rosenfeld fight on their behalf, most of the time, they’re either pushing Woodstein – as they became known – or chewing them out) – and in visual terms (when they’re in the Library of Congress to look up books Hunt took out on Ted Kennedy, the camera is positioned on the roof, and it pulls up more and more to make them look like specks in this giant area).

This also comes through when it comes to the people Woodward and Bernstein interviewed. While Woodward does talk to Hunt and Clark MacGregor on the phone, and Bernstein with Mitchell, it’s only to get their reactions to stories being written about them. We never see anyone in the upper echelon of power in the Nixon administration, except on TV in the background at the newspaper office. Aside from Deep Throat (more on him later), the only people Bernstein and Woodward get to speak to who are in positions close to what was going on were the Bookkeeper (Jane Alexander) – a composite of a few people who worked for CREEP – and Hugh Sloan (Stephen Collins), the treasurer of CREEP and, according to Woodward and Bernstein, one of the few honest people involved in the whole mess. Yet you can feel the distrust, unease, and outright fear that Woodward and Bernstein were running up against when trying to get interviews. Part of this comes from the actors involved – particularly Alexander and Valerie Curtin as a tearful member of CREEP they visit twice – but most of it is the way Pakula and cinematographer Gordon Willis shoot the film. While the Post offices are brightly (even harshly) lit, as to emphasize the fact the truth is being written there, most scenes of the rest of the interviews and research shown out of the office are darkly lit, to emphasize the murkiness of the territory Woodward and Bernstein are wading in.*

Hal Holbrook as Deep Throat

Hal Holbrook as Deep Throat

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the scenes between Woodward and Deep Throat. As we now know, after 30 years of intense speculation about the identity of Deep Throat, W. Mark Felt, deputy director of the FBI at the time, finally revealed he was in fact Deep Throat.** These meetings were already the stuff of spy stories anyway; Felt insisted Woodward shouldn’t call him on the phone about Watergate, but should signal he wanted a meeting by leaving a plant with a red flag in it on his balcony, change cabs along the way, and only meet in darkly lit garages. And because, as I mentioned before, Deep Throat would only give snatches of information to Woodward (he insisted on doing things his way), it makes sense to shoot him in the dark. But what Pakula and Willis do with these scenes is what makes them memorable. Woodward, of course, is in the dark both literally and figuratively (he only comes when he’s stuck or, after he and Bernstein erroneously report what Sloan said to the grand jury, to find out if they were wrong), but we can still see his face. By contrast, we can barely see Deep Throat’s. We see his eyes, especially if he’s smoking a cigarette, and we can hear his voice (Holbrook, who possesses one of the great voices, does a perfect job at conveying Deep Throat’s disgust, bitterness and fear), but he’s essentially a shadow. That especially comes through in their second meeting, when they’re interrupted by a car driving out of the garage; Woodward turns to look, and when he turns back, Deep Throat has disappeared into thin air. It may sound simple, but Willis and Pakula do it brilliantly^, and it’s probably these scenes Goldman was thinking of when he called Willis the hero of the movie (and why it’s especially egregious Willis wasn’t even nominated for a Best Cinematography Oscar here; Goldman did thank Willis in his speech when he won Best Adapted Screenplay).

In hindsight, it’s fitting a story that took a lot of work and a lot of stumbling in the dark (both literally, as with Woodward’s meetings with Deep Throat, and figuratively) would be made into a movie that also took a lot of work and traveled through a lot of roadblocks. The biggest one was the script. While Redford had worked on three movies Goldman had written (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance KidThe Hot Rock, and The Great Waldo Pepper), would go to work on a fourth (A Bridge Too Far), and had become friends (even after Redford had pulled out of another movie Goldman had written, which never got made), Redford claimed he hadn’t really wanted Goldman to write the script for All the President’s Men because he thought Goldman was too flippant towards the subject. In his seminal book Adventures in the Screen Trade, Goldman admitted he thought people were sick of the story, but he said Redford offered the movie to him, and he was eager to take it. Redford’s fears seemed to be realized when he and Goldman met with Woodward and Bernstein, and Goldman, referring to the incompetence of the burglars (the time they had gotten caught wasn’t the first time they had tried to break in; one time, they brought the wrong keys), said, “It’s almost like a comic opera” (Goldman admitted it was the wrong thing to say, and Bernstein was right to be pissed). Redford also was displeased when he read Goldman’s script, claiming it was as smart-ass as he feared, and Elia Kazan actually turned the movie down because of it (Goldman says he was only told the first director they offered it to simply wanted to screw over Warner Brothers). Bernstein ended up writing his own version of the script, along with his then-girlfriend Nora Ephron – which ended up pissing Goldman off to no end – and it basically made Bernstein the main hero of the story.^^ Eventually, when Pakula came on board as director, he and Redford rewrote the script together, with Alvin Sargent doing some polish work on it, but with Goldman out of the picture.

(In Brown’s Pakula book, Redford said he was blown away that Goldman accepted the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for the movie when, it Redford’s view, he didn’t. In hindsight, I think Redford is protesting too much. Goldman does have scenes in his version of the script – available in his collection Five Screenplays – that aren’t in the finished movie; scenes of the average guy on the street reacting to the story as if it’s a non-story, a scene with Bernstein with his ex-wife (which Goldman said was Pakula’s idea), and a scene between Woodward and Katharine Graham, publisher of the Post (see below). And it is true the dialogue between Woodward and Bernstein was a little too smart-ass, and they both sounded the same. Nevertheless, many of the scenes in the script play the same way they did in the movie, including the arraignment court scene, Woodward’s meetings with Deep Throat for the most part (especially the line “Follow the money”), and Bradlee’s more caustic remarks. Also, it was Goldman’s decision to end the movie right after Woodward and Bernstein’s screw-up – they claimed Sloan had named H.R. Haldeman, Nixon’s chief of staff, to the grand jury as one of the people controlling the CREEP slush fund, when in fact he never did (it turns out he would have, but wasn’t asked) – and, as he wrote in his book, letting the audience supply their triumph at the end (in Goldman’s script, we see pictures of the President’s men with “Convicted” stamped on them, while in the movie, we see the news of the convictions on the news teletype). In one instance, I do believe Goldman himself protested too much; he claimed the scene of Bernstein faking out the secretary (Polly Holliday) of Dardis (Ned Beatty), the lawyer he’s been trying to see, was an example of hyping the material for dramatic purposes, but it’s in Goldman’s script).

Bernstein and Woodward after Deep Throat has told them their lives are in danger.

Bernstein wasn’t the only headache from the Post the filmmakers had to deal with (Goldman has gone out of his way to show his gratitude for Woodward’s help on the script, and said Woodward apologized to him for letting Bernstein write his own script; Goldman has also said if he had to do it all over again, he wouldn’t have written the movie, though it didn’t stop him from being interviewed for the 2002 2-disc DVD release). Neither Bradlee nor Katharine Graham wanted anything to do with the movie, and even though, as I said above, Goldman had written a scene between Woodward and Graham (that took place in real life), and Pakula had cast Geraldine Page as Graham. While Bradlee eventually came around, Graham successfully pleaded with Redford and Pakula not to use her name (though when she finally saw the movie, she loved it). Also, Redford and Pakula originally wanted to shoot the movie in the offices of the Post for verisimilitude, but when they realized staffers were letting the movie make them feel self-conscious, it was eventually decided to build a set of the news office.

Still, the fact none of that behind-the-scenes controversy affected the finished product speaks well of Redford as a producer and Pakula as a director. Except for a scene after Woodward’s second meeting with Deep Throat (the one where Deep Throat vanished after a car distracted them), when he runs as if he thinks he’s being followed, and a scene late in the movie when Woodward has Bernstein turn up the music in his apartment and types out his fears they’ve been bugged (this actually happened, but long after the debacle with the grand jury), Pakula doesn’t try to hype the story at all (and these scenes represent understandable paranoia, though Woodward and Bernstein came to believe they weren’t being bugged and, contrary to Deep Throat’s fears, their lives weren’t in danger). In fact, he takes his time telling it, and not just in the fact we see the actual work done to get each story. This especially comes out in one of the most famous scenes of the movie, where Woodward is on the phone with Kenneth Dahlberg (Midwest finance chairman of CREEP) about a check of his that ended up in the possession of one of the Watergate burglars. The entire scene lasts nearly six minutes (and is done with the help of a split diopter lens, which allowed the foreground of Woodward on the phone and the background of staffers watching news on TV to be in the same shot), has no music, and has Redford making a mistake (though it’s in character), yet it’s one of the most gripping scenes in the film. This was the final film in Pakula’s so-called “paranoia” trilogy (after Klute and The Parallax View; the latter will be dealt in a future post), but again, he lets the paranoia come out of the material.

Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward

The film also shines because of the performances. Even though Redford wasn’t able to have unknowns play Woodward and Bernstein, he did, except for the editor roles and Deep Throat, cast mostly unknowns in the movie to lend it authenticity (although many faces are recognizable to us now – in addition to Alexander, Beatty,Collins and Holliday, there’s also M. Murray Abraham as a cop, Dominic Chianese as one of the burglars, Nicholas Coster as a man at the arraignment hearing whom Woodward becomes suspicious of, John McMartin as the foreign editor who expresses skepticism about the story, Robert Walden as dirty tricks specialist Donald Segretti, Meredith Baxter as Sloan’s wife, and James Karen as Sloan’s lawyer). And the star actors are up to the challenge as well. According to Goldman, Rosenfeld was someone who could crack wise with the best of them, but he can also be a hardass to his reporters (when Woodward wants to know who Colson is, Rosenfeld says if Bradlee or Simons had heard the question, they’d have canned him on the spot) and yet protective of them (at a budget meeting, when the national editor disparages both Watergate and Woodstein, Rosenfeld is the first to rise to their defense), and Warden does all of that. Balsam doesn’t have as much to do as Simons, but he exerts both an air of authority and camaraderie with Bradlee. Casting Robards was apparently Redford’s idea (they had worked together on a made-for-TV version of The Iceman Cometh, and Robards had been very kind to Redford), which Pakula resisted, since Robards was best known for playing the disillusioned characters of Eugene O’Neill plays, and that was the complete opposite of Bradlee. But Robards is able to convey authority simply by walking (Pakula and Willis give him a star entrance with a tracking shot as he walks over to read a story Woodstein has written) and with just a look (when Bernstein protests about his story being cut down, a single glance from Bradlee silences him). Of course, he’s also temperamental and caustic when needed, but Robards doesn’t overplay that either.

The key to the movie, of course, is both Woodward and Bernstein, and whether we’re willing to follow them. In a sense, this is the classic buddy movie, as they’re complete opposites, in addition to how they came to work for the paper. Woodward and Bernstein started out by not liking each other (especially after Bernstein rewrote Woodward’s story without Woodward’s permission or knowledge at first; Woodward snaps at him, “I don’t mind what you did, I mind the way you did it”), but gradually became friends despite their differences (Woodward was Republican – which surprised Bernstein when he revealed it in their conversation with Sloan – while Bernstein was a Democrat, Woodward kept a messy apartment, while Bernstein’s was organized, and Woodward was more cautious in general, while Bernstein was more willing to take intuitive leaps), as well as working partners. Redford and Hoffman had that relationship down. They apparently memorized each other’s dialogue, so the times they interrupt each other seem natural instead of stage-managed, and the difference in their acting styles (Redford was more methodical and insisted on sticking to the script, while Hoffman was looser and compatible with Pakula’s improvisational style) mirrored perfectly the difference between the two reporters in real life.

Both the book and the movie All the President’s Men, as well as the reporting Woodward and Bernstein did on Watergate, have been hailed as a triumph of journalism. But was it really? Certainly, it was a triumph for Woodward and Bernstein, both of whom became famous after the story (Woodward especially; he’s written several well-regarded and best-selling books), and also for the Post since they stood behind the story. But the fact remains the media, for the most part (except, again, the few exceptions listed above) only came onto the story after it became clear it wasn’t going away. Not only that, but the wrong lessons were learned from the story. On the one hand, it seemed as if writers were interested in breaking that big story without doing the hard work Woodward and Bernstein did to get there (it may be no accident a later major newspaper journalism-oriented movie – Sydney Pollack’s 1981 movie Absence of Malice – was about a reporter (Sally Field) who writes a big story before it’s correctly verified, leading to all kinds of problems). On the other, when media consolidation happened in the 80’s and 90’s, and the push towards tabloid media entered the mainstream media, those who pushed tabloid and “lifestyle” stories as opposed to investigative stories (unless they could garner a Pulitzer) probably were hoping to avoid another Watergate. However, while there have been many movies attacking where the media got it wrong, like Absence of Malice, there have been many more celebrating what good journalism can do (Redford’s most recent directorial effort, The Company You Keep, is an example; while the reporter character (Shia LaBeouf) may start out as conceited and somewhat unscrupulous, he does the hard investigative work and has a conscience about what he reports). If that’s the legacy of the movie of All the President’s Men, it’s not a bad one.

*-The one exception I can think of is when Bernstein interviews a woman (Penny Peyser) who first tells him about the White House’s obsession with Ted Kennedy; it’s outside at lunch, so it’s brightly lit, but since they’re only scratching the surface here, the brightness doesn’t feel out of place.

**-Before casting Deep Throat, Pakula went to Woodward, showed him photos, and asked Woodward if casting Holbrook was okay, on the off chance Deep Throat would later be revealed as someone completely different. As it happened, Holbrook bore a strong physical resemblance to felt, so Woodward okayed the casting.

^- Andrew Fleming’s 1999 film Dick is an often funny film that re-imagines Deep Throat as two bubble-headed teenage girls (Kirsten Dunst and Michelle Williams) who expose Nixon (Dan Hedaya) not because of Watergate, but because of his use of foul language and his treatment of his dogs. However, by comparison, Fleming’s staging of the garage scenes between the girls and Woodward (Will Ferrell) and Bernstein (Bruce McCulloch) is conventional, and worse, not very funny.

^^-Goldman said he couldn’t read the script until he had been told to by lawyers. Redford eventually realized he made a mistake in letting Bernstein write his own version, and told him, “Errol Flynn is dead.”

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7 Comments
  1. Sean, you’ve done an excellent review of this rich, complex true political detective story. That amazing cast just can’t be beat, including Oscar-winner Jason Robards Jr.!

  2. For me, this is one of only films that I truly enjoyed as much as the book. The cast is superb! I loved all the extra details you included as I didn’t know a great deal about that – especially all the stumbling blocks on the road to its creation, surprising considering that the finished article is so polished and so considered! Thanks for sharing!

  3. One of my all time favorite films and I really enjoyed your review which contained information I wasn’t aware of about the making of the film. I knew that a scene with Katharine Graham had been considered, I had read that both Patricia Neal and Lauren Bacall had both been thought of but didn’t know they had actually cast Geraldine Page. I loved Gerry Page but can’t really see her as Graham, I thought Patricia Neal would have been ideal. It’s a film I can watch again and again and never tire of because of investigative narrative and of course the top notch acting from all concerned. I can’t say I discover something new every time I watch it but no matter how familiar the story it remains compelling viewing and that’s a credit to Pakula’s direction.

    • Thanks, Joel! I got the information about Page from the book about Pakula I mentioned in the post. I agree Bacall or Neal would have been a better choice.

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