All the President's Men (1976)
August 19, 2019 3:02 PM - Subscribe

The movie begins and ends with images of print on paper. Typewriter keys slam a date onto a blank page: June 1, 1972. President Nixon, in the midst of his re-election campaign and returning from a trip to Moscow, arrives at the Capitol Building to address Congress and the nation. Soon after, in the pre-dawn hours of a Saturday morning, security guard Frank Wills (portraying himself in the film) summons police to the Watergate Complex after discovering evidence of intruders in an office building. In the 6th floor headquarters of the Democratic National Committee, plainclothes officers responding to the call apprehend five well-dressed men in the midst of an attempted burglary. Later that morning 29-year-old reporter Bob Woodward (Robert Redford), hired just months ago at the Washington Post and the lowest-paid member of its staff, is called in to cover the suspects’ arraignment. The case seems of little importance, yet puzzling details soon emerge that arouse Woodward’s suspicions. Another eager young Post reporter, Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman), is assigned to join Woodward in following-up on the story. Through diligence, persistence, prodding from editors, and crucial assistance from a shadowy source, the duo uncover some startling connections.

Official Trailer

What began as a minor story about a bungled break-in at the Watergate has become a watershed in the history of investigative journalism. It helped prompt a significant shake-up at the highest levels of the US government, transforming perceptions of both politics and journalism in the process. [For anyone possessing only a glancing familiarity with late 20th century American history, fair warning that some of what follows contains spoilers]

Woodward and Bernstein soon adapted their reporting into a book, published in 1974, with the film rights already purchased by actor/producer Robert Redford, who had contacted them while they were still in the midst of covering Watergate. His interest in the journalists was piqued early on when he'd made note of their bylines:
“I read this small little article on who these two guys were,” he later explained. “It said, well, one guy is a Jew, the other guy is a WASP. One guy’s a Republican, the other one is a liberal. One guy writes very well, the other guy doesn’t write so well. They don’t like each other, but they have to work together. I thought, ‘That’s really an interesting dynamic.’ ”
In fact, Redford played a significant role in the book's genesis. He suggested to Woodward and Bernstein the idea of focusing the story on themselves and their process rather than simply rehashing the whole Watergate saga.

Adapting this book for the screen would be perhaps the most daunting example ever of trying to create suspense from current events that everyone already knew the outcome of (not to mention dramatizing the often tedious process of journalism). To tackle the job Redford hired William Goldman, who’d previously won an Oscar for writing the blockbuster that made Redford a superstar: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Goldman's work on All the President's Men could be seen as a crowning achievement, in which he coined the catchphrase “follow the money” and made the daring and ingenious decision to adapt only the first half of the book, seemingly eschewing a dramatic resolution by ending with Nixon's re-election. It's long on detail and short on action, yet it hums with energy. The script netted Goldman a second Oscar, but he later said he was unhappy with the finished product. This may have stemmed from a difficult development process, as he noted that he’d never written so many versions of a screenplay as he did for All the President’s Men.

Alan J. Pakula was brought on to direct. This was to be the third film in Pakula’s “paranoia trilogy”, following Klute and The Parallax View. Shooting began in 1975 at many of the actual locations in and around D.C. that Woodward and Bernstein had visited during their investigation. Most famous is an iconic scene at the Library of Congress in the main reading room. An overhead view is tightly framed on the desk where the two reporters fruitlessly search through thousands of library circulation cards. The shot pulls back slowly, the camera rising straight upward through a series of dissolves to reveal the cavernous space, with concentric rings of tables evoking the image of a web or maze and the sense of an enormous task ahead. As Bernstein himself has described it:
“The shot, and the scene itself, as the overwhelming number of card-files are brought to the reporters — they got a bit more than they bargained for in all their cleverness — brilliantly illustrates both the monumental and granular challenges of real reporting, as well as the context of what is going on at the time in our own situation at that juncture."
The Washington Post newsroom in the film was, alas, actually a 32,000 square foot set built on Warner Brothers’ Burbank Lot in California. The real office's warren of desks was replicated in meticulous detail, right down to the shelves stocked with out-of-date phonebooks and waste baskets filled with actual papers and refuse from the Post in D.C. The nearly 200 primary-colored desks (color-coded by news section just like in the real office) were sourced from the original supplier. One newsroom scene in particular, unheralded at the time but receiving praise in retrospect, is a 6-minute shot of Woodward making phonecalls. That's all. But it's completely transfixing. Here's the Onion A.V. Club's Mike D'Angelo giving the scene its due.

The film (like the events it portrays) is a product of its time, but one is still struck by how much men dominate the proceedings. Women make appearances, but only when they can be persuaded into prying information from their ex-boyfriends (this happens with two different characters) or to be reluctant witnesses pressured into talking. Even Katherine Graham, publisher of the Post, is only mentioned in a now infamous outburst from Attorney General John Mitchell on a phonecall with Bernstein.

With the 40th anniversary of the Watergate investigation and the movie (and William Goldman's death in 2018) came a plethora of articles and behind-the-scenes accounts. Here are a few:

In 2013 Redford produced the documentary All the President's Men Revisited (described by the NY Times as "What did Robert Redford film, and when did he film it?")

American Cinematographer - Flashback: All the President's Men (reprint of 1976 article by the film's director of photography Gordon Willis, giving in-depth explanations of his lighting methods, shooting techniques, and problem-solving skills)

Los Angeles Review of Books - On Its 40th Anniversary: Notes on the Making of All the President’s Men (by Jon Boorstin, who was director Alan J. Pakula's assistant)

Washingtonian - All the President's Men: An Oral History

New Yorker - William Goldman Turned Reporters into Heroes in All the President’s Men

Washington Post - As All the President’s Men turns 40 today, let’s follow our favorite shots from the movie

All the President's Men was nominated for eight Academy Awards and won four: William Goldman for Best Adapted Screenplay, Jason Robards for Best Supporting Actor (as executive editor Ben Bradlee), Best Sound, and Best Art Direction.
posted by theory (17 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
I love this movie, but at the same time, having read both of Woodstein's books on the subject of Watergate, I look at it objectively and am of two minds about it.

The paranoia of the movie, both subtle (the bookkeeper and the Sloan character among others) and overt (Deep Throat and the parking garage) is truly great film making. Everything in the movie leads the viewer to believe that there is a vast conspiracy involving every level of the US intelligence community and "lives are in danger."

But on the other hand, in real life, unlike other major conspiracy events, no one died mysteriously (that we know of). People got fired and there was a constitutional crisis, but the sun still rose in the east and set in the west each day...

Anyway. Obviously, props to all the leading actors and the director and Goldman. The supporting characters are truly important. The people at the Post, the campaign people including Jane Alexander as the bookkeeper and Stephen Collins as Sloan the CReEP treasurer. The guy who played Segretti did a masterful job of creating the character. And of course, Hal Holbrook's performance as Deep Throat: my brother and I love to watch movies where Hal played dark authority figures.
posted by Fukiyama at 7:41 PM on August 19, 2019 [2 favorites]

Yes the supporting cast is fantastic, especially Jane Alexander (as the bookkeeper), Robert Walden (as Segretti), and everyone at the Post. On a recent re-watch I decided my favorite is Jason Robards as Ben Bradlee, who's only in a few scenes but steals every one of them. Propping his feet up on whatever desk he happens to be near could have come across as overly mannered but he totally pulls it off as a classic, semi-conscious power move. And if you look closely you'll see that even in scenes he's not involved in, he's still lurking in his office in the background of many shots. I read that Robards wasn't asked to always be on set like that but he felt it would lend authenticity to the office scenes if the audience (and the cast) felt he was omnipresent.
posted by theory at 9:47 PM on August 19, 2019 [5 favorites]

This is such a good movie, and such a good product of its time. It's hard to imagine anything like it being made today. So low-key and matter-of-fact, yet compelling.

For those who weren't living during this period, it's also an important time capsule look at how vital journalism was back then. And, as you watch the film, keep in-mind that the events of Watergate, up to and including Nixon's resignation, mark the point at which the Republican party, and the right in-general, began the long, steady war on, and erosion of, investigative journalism in America.

It's practically become an article of online faith today to believe that there never actually was such a thing as "journalism" in America. That the sad excuse for journalism we see today is how it's always been. Those of us who lived through this tumultuous time know better. This movie is good, if imperfect, look into how things used to be, and why the state of things today is particular galling for many of us.
posted by Thorzdad at 5:45 AM on August 20, 2019 [9 favorites]

Competency porn plus the instrumental score = I'll be in my bunk.
posted by emelenjr at 8:15 AM on August 20, 2019 [5 favorites]

I love this film. It’s on the list of movies that I’ll always stick around to watch if I happen to come across it on tv.

The pre-internet legwork is so interesting to me. Working from typed paper lists! Shelves of city phone books! Sitting in the Library of Congress going through paper check out receipts!
posted by bookmammal at 1:26 PM on August 20, 2019 [2 favorites]

GREAT film. If you liked this and haven’t seen Shattered Glass, check it out.
posted by sallybrown at 1:37 PM on August 20, 2019

I used to watch this every year on the Fourth of July; I should start that up again. It's one of my favorite films, and I am very much not a film person. But, yeah -- competency porn! And intense scenes of people doing research! These are a few of my favorite things.

Thorzdad, thank you for an amazing comment. I was not alive during this time period, but I'm fascinated by the change America underwent so quickly.
posted by kalimac at 2:34 PM on August 20, 2019

GREAT film. If you liked this and haven’t seen Shattered Glass, check it out.

Also, if you liked All The President's Men and haven't seen Dick, you need to rectify that situation.
posted by oh yeah! at 4:26 PM on August 20, 2019 [5 favorites]

While we're recommending related films -- I just rewatched Frost/Nixon and it's terrifyingly good and apt for the moment. The emphasis on media and journalism (or not -- however history assesses him, the other characters don't think much of David Frost as a journalist) and the role they play in Nixon's legacy is a major theme, kind of a neat continuation from All The President's Men
posted by kalimac at 5:32 PM on August 20, 2019

Ok—I’ll take a turn and also suggest a movie! Spotlight is a great, recent film about the Boston Globe’s investigation of the sex abuse within the Catholic Church. Same type of vibe in terms of pre-internet journalism. It’s really good. (Sexual abuse is discussed but never actually shown.)
posted by bookmammal at 5:52 PM on August 20, 2019 [4 favorites]

posted by Thorzdad at 6:55 PM on August 20, 2019 [1 favorite]

Haven't read the book but near the end the last meeting Deep Throat says that the cover up was not for the White house but for the entire intelligence community, but it really just stopped at the WH, so did the cover up work? Was Felt a patriot or a tool of the deep spooks?
posted by sammyo at 9:25 PM on August 20, 2019

Oh and I've seen that view of the LoC reading room, long before security theater shut down so many fun nooks I was on a DC visit and went in to the library, got an obscure book just for fun and then looking around notice a small wooden gate on the side of the room, no sign, no indication it was out of bounds but a small staircase that wound way up to the dome. No one even noticed I was up there. All the concentric reading desks were just like in the film just the best place.

And for a film to have the stars rife through thousands and thousands of small slips and nothing, dead end; was I expect brave even then, even if it was accurate.
posted by sammyo at 9:32 PM on August 20, 2019 [2 favorites]


Good newspaper movie. And it's Jack Webb, so you know the details of a newsroom are right.
posted by Fukiyama at 8:18 AM on August 21, 2019 [1 favorite]

Also pairs well with The Post.
posted by kirkaracha at 6:25 PM on August 23, 2019 [1 favorite]

Haven't read the book but near the end the last meeting Deep Throat says that the cover up was not for the White house but for the entire intelligence community, but it really just stopped at the WH, so did the cover up work? Was Felt a patriot or a tool of the deep spooks?

If I recall correctly, Felt was more a disgruntled employee: Felt was angry he had been passed over for Director in favor of an outsider he disliked. While I'm sure he did consider himself a patriot, I can't say how that plays into wanting to discredit Nixon, considering Felt idolized Hoover — who obviously was as big a bastard (if not more) as Tricky Dick.
posted by kaisemic at 12:40 PM on August 26, 2019

Just re-watched it after 45 years and wow is this still such a great film. I love how relentlessly it moves; there's no subplots or backstories or explanations of motivation, just the hunt for the story. This is just one of those films were everything clicks: the screenplay, the solid but unflashy direction, the acting from the leads and from so many supporting actors, Gordon Willis' photography, the score, the production design.
posted by octothorpe at 11:23 AM on February 1, 2021

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