“All the President’s Men” is an exciting film, cherished for the way it captures important moments not just in history – but also journalism.
This was no accident. The movie opens with an extreme close-up of a typewriter key striking a page. It’s typing June 17, 1972 – the date of the break-in to the Watergate hotel. The scene signals that this movie will be the story of the reporters, but the magnified sound of the typewriter implies its central message: that the simple events it depicts will rock the nation.
President Nixon’s scandal eventually consumed America’s attention throughout 1974, with revelations of secret White House tapes and Nixon’s controversial firing of the special prosecutor. Nixon’s resignation that August lends every scene in this movie an irony and an impact. When Dustin Hoffman first appears as Carl Bernstein, he’s being scolded by an editor for being behind on his deadlines, and Woodward is chastised for not knowing the title of Presidential counsel Chuck Colson.
The two reporters are shown as ordinary people, doing their jobs, only gradually becoming aware that there’s a large and sinister conspiracy within the government. And many more ordinary Americans are involved in exposing the secret – the editors, the newspaper’s owner, and their many sources. (Jason Robards even won an Oscar for his role as their editor, Ben Bradlee.) There’s something poignant about their interviews with low-level political operatives, many of whom know only parts of the story and are genuinely disturbed by the allegations of wrong-doing.
Nixon’s White House officials deny the story – or at least, parts of it, and the stonewalling creates part of the movie’s tension. How confident are the editors at the Washington Post in the face of these denials? The two reporters continue digging, interviewing major party officials and minor ones. (At one point they even review hundreds of slips showing books checked out from libraries). But the edges of the criminal conspiracy remain tantalizing fierce in their denials.
When Bob Woodward asked with distracted curiosity why Howard Hunt’s phone number was in the pocket of one of the Watergate burglars, Hunt replies “Good god” – but then refuses to talk. And a phone call for a comment from Attorney General John Mitchell leads to a strangely angry threat against Washington Post publisher Katherine Graham. Even their chief source, codenamed “Deep Throat,” insists on meeting late at night in a dark parking garage. And he’s also refusing to tell everything he knows.
The interviews continue, the reporters still unsure of exactly what they’ve discovered. The slow revealing is almost cathartic, since the movie was released in 1976, within two years of Nixon’s resignation. (The producers even brought in the original guard from the Watergate hotel to recreate the moment when he began suspecting the burglars.) One shot shows a crowd on TV chanting “Four more years” as Nixon wins the nomination at the 1972 Republican convention. The camera pans back to reveal Bob Woodward, still working on his next story.
The screenplay won an Oscar, and the film was nominated for seven others (including best picture). It recreates the ordinary investigation behind an extraordinary crime, confining its dramatic speeches to a few key scenes. (“Nothing’s riding on this,” editor Ben Bradlee says towards the end, “except the first amendment to the Constitution, freedom of the press, and maybe the future of the country.”) The truth remains complicated and muddled – but eventually the pieces fall into place.
“The truth is, these are not very bright guys,” Deep Throat says sardonically, “and things got out of hand.” Woodward presses him angrily for more information, until finally his crucial source complies.
“Get out your notebook,” Deep Throat replies. “There’s more…”