Watching All the President’s Men is a pretty eerie experience right now, in February of 2017, with our own presidential scandal unfolding in front of us. It’s also a pretty educational experience, as someone unfamiliar with the process of investigative journalism, to see a behind-the-scenes look at the legwork, the self doubt, the paranoia, that goes into the kind of investigations that are unfolding at key journalistic outlets across the country right now.
The story of Watergate is so legendary at this point, so mythic, something that everyone learns about in grade school American history, that it’s important to assign some context to the story:
A security guard catches a group of men breaking into the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C. where the Democratic National Committee has made its headquarters; nobody thinks this is anything more than a chance break-in. It’s such a low priority that in almost all of the major national newspapers, the event warrants little more than a cursory mention; The Washington Post assigns rookie reporter Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) to cover the case, and nobody thinks any more of it.
It’s a pretty major what-if, really. What if some other reporter had been assigned to the case? What if the Post had just brushed it off like the other major newspapers? And, at the same time, how many major political scandals have we missed because no reporter was persistent enough to pull the thread, and keep pulling, until they untangled something big?
Bob Woodward, and eventually fellow journalist Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman), begin to follow the thread of this case, uncovering a massive web of deceit, crime and intimidation, which eventually would lead to some of the most important and powerful men in the world. But this story doesn’t start with the president, or with Deep Throat, and Pulitzer Prizes; it starts with errant checks, and persistent phone calls, and trying to track down names in the phone book.
Investigative journalism could be pretty boring to watch; thankfully, director Alan J. Pakula proves himself quite adept at showing Woodward and Bernstein’s work in interesting and powerful ways, without straying too far from the real events that occurred.
For one thing, the economy with which Woodward and Bernstein are presented is pretty unusual. A lesser film might feel obligated to show us more of their personal lives, their families, their personal motivations; All the President’s Men is smart enough to recognize that, with actors like Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford, you don’t need the extra exposition – they’re such skilled actors that they can sell it all on their own.
For another, Pakula recognizes that All the President’s Men isn’t about the destination- it’s about the process, and the world that these characters exist in. At first, Bernstein and Woodward have no idea what kind of deep water they’re jumping into, no idea why they’re getting stonewalled at every turn, or the kind of power that they’re trying to fight against. It’s not until they begin to meet in dark parking lots with shadowy anonymous sources like Deep Throat, that they begin to recognize that they’re more than a little bit out of their depth. And yet, they persist, against impossible odds.
It’s interesting watching All the President’s Men in light of the 2016 Best Picture winner, Spotlight, which also follows a team of investigative journalists as they try to uncover a major case. Spotlight has some more modern flourishes, some cliche Hollywood “big” acting moments where the stars of the film get to emote (All the President’s Men never has a moment like that, where the actors get to have a “big” moment – it’s much more subtle). It’s impossible to imagine what a film like Spotlight might look like, if it would even exist, without the context of All the President’s Men; so many of the story beats, so much of the production and design, takes its cue from the older film.
Importantly, All the President’s Men also teaches us a key lesson, one which we could use a reminder on in 2017: don’t underestimate the power of a free press. This is the obvious, natural takeaway from this film, but it’s also an essential one, especially in times like these. It’s hard not to think about this film nowadays, especially when The Washington Post also happens to be the paper of record for one of the key stories in the current political crisis.
It remains to be seen what the ultimate outcome of this crisis will be. Will it all blow over? Or, will we be talking about this political crisis 40 years from now, will schoolchildren be learning about it in their elementary school classes, will there be another great film about hardy journalists who are able to topple powerful institutions and people?
All the President’s Men serves as a reminder that there’s nothing more fundamental to American values, and to the American political system, than a free press. Whichever way things go, I’m glad that we have organizations like The Washington Post and The New York Times who are committed to uncovering the truth.