The final addition to Alan J. Pakula’s famous Paranoia Trilogy (along with Klute and The Parallax View), All the President’s Men is often regarded as the finest “newspaper film” ever made. It presents the reporting of the Watergate scandal in a manner that perfectly captures the atmospheric anxiety of that period and the constant battles with truth and manipulation. Although relatively recent gems like the 2015 picture Spotlight have also massively contributed to the genre, what makes All the President’s Men relevant after all these years?
Partially based on the 1974 book written by the Washington Post journalists who broke the story — Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein — Robert Redford (who played the role of Woodward) became interested in the Watergate break-in details while promoting his 1972 political drama The Candidate. He approached Woodward and ended up buying the book’s rights, even managing to get the editor of The Washington Post Ben Bradlee (played by Jason Robards in the film) on board. Bradlee concluded that the film would be made with or without him, so he decided to set things straight by providing his valuable input, hoping that the project would prove that newspapers “strive very hard for responsibility”.
Redford asked William Goldman to write the screenplay but he wasn’t satisfied with Goldman’s first draft. Bernstein and his girlfriend Nora Ephron tried to hijack the script by producing their own draft. However, their work was too “sophomoric” and even factually incorrect at times. Goldman’s work was ultimately chosen and it became a crucial element of All the President’s Men, facilitating the intense paranoia and the political intrigue.
Redford also sat down with Pakula to work on the script, and the filmmaker interviewed several reporters and editors while researching the approach he was going to take. Dustin Hoffman (who starred as Bernstein) and Redford spent months in The Washington Post offices, learning all about the world of journalism. They wanted to film it in the same offices, but the newspaper declined their request, forcing them to replicate even the minor details like boxes of trash in the studio.
All the President’s Men ended up earning eight Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director bids. Revisiting Pakula’s 1976 masterpiece is important not just because of the accolades and the political significance of the Watergate scandal. The events punctured the poorly constructed illusion that the USA was the greatest democracy in the world and All the President’s Men portrays all of that brilliantly. However, the film represents something else in the 21st century.
It is a philosophical commentary on the world of investigative journalism, a term that has been rendered arbitrary in the “post-truth” era. Objectivity is not an expectation that is associated with the media anymore when their political affiliations (and corporate overlords) are openly advertised. The result is the divisive dispensation of (mis)information to people who are actively looking for specific kinds of “truths”, enabling the creation of infinite societal echo chambers.
For Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, an objective truth did exist and that truth was being obscured by governmental cover-ups and federal conspiracies. Pakula’s vision is so effective because it combines Goldman’s incessant disclosure of guilty names with a visual manifestation of the anxiety. There are tracking shots across the newsroom as the two journalists race from one point to another, desperately trying to put the pieces together while attempting to uncover the forbidden big picture. Through the innovative use of television sets, Pakula creates a reflexive interface between the two mediums as he presents TV reports from that period — including the legendary 1972 chess world championship match between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky as well as Richard Nixon’s second inauguration in 1973.
Looking back, these tiny details have become quasi-mythological in nature and help newer generations of viewers immerse themselves in a world that no longer exists. Well, at least the scandals are still around.
If anything, All the President’s Men is a necessary reminder that scepticism is vital for keeping authoritarian powers in check. The hypocrisies of the political programming can only be laid bare if there is an active effort by the alleged fourth pillar of democracy to remain affiliated to the truth. At some point, the film must have inspired several aspiring journalists to engage in similar pursuits. Newer audiences will have a different experience when confronting All the President’s Men as a tragedy, inevitably wondering whether such an undertaking would have been possible today when automated bots and propaganda specialists have mastered the art of social media and, seemingly, our lives.