There is a moment in Alan J. Pakula’s journalistic thriller “All the President’s Men” when the Washington Post’s infamous swashbuckling reporters Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman), the ones who helped bring down President Richard Nixon in the wake of Watergate, are knocking on doors of people from the Committee to Re-Elect the President, trying to get someone to talk. Finally, miracle of miracles, they do, as the kindly Carolyn Abbott (Allyn Ann McLerie) invites them in for coffee. Yet as they talk it quickly becomes clear that Ms. Abbott is not the Ms. Abbott they think she is. “Oh, I don’t work at the Committee to Re-Elect the President,” she says. “I work at Garfinkel’s, in the accounting department.” It’s a humorous moment, of course, but more than that it doubles as the one moment in “All the President’s Men” when Woodward and Bernstein are not in contact with either a fellow journalist or someone functioning as a cog, whether high up or far down, in the giant political machine. And their unveiled disappointment in discovering that they are in the presence of a boring ol’ regular person is telling.
That sets it apart from last year’s Oscar-winning Best Picture “Spotlight”, for which Pakula’s film was often and not wrongly cited as a comparison. Yes, both movies effectively mined drama from the minutiae of the journalistic process, but “Spotlight” allowed brief spaces for its characters to express their true feelings toward the Catholic criminals they were pursuing. That never really happens in “All the President’s Men”, which sticks closely to the paper trail, reveling in dates, figures and names, repeatedly contrasting the shadows of the night and dark offices and silent homes where all the truth-digging takes place with the bright, almost painful white lights, of the newsroom where sense has to be made of this information overload. The human interest angle that exists somewhere in-between, where the crookedness of Tricky Dick might trickle down to the unsuspecting American populace he governs, is nowhere to be found.
The human interest is never played up in the two leading performances either. Although Redford can’t help but cut the figure of a movie star, he nevertheless never goes all in on Heroic. Indeed, he simply craves the story, the desire to break the big headline and the same goes for Bernstein, played by Hoffman with a wry smile that gets turned up to 11 whenever he is in the presence of the lady, whether she likes him or not. They are two men with their nose to the grind, emblemized in their introductions, with Woodward trying to catch up on sleep on a Saturday morning only to get a call about the Watergate break-in while Bernstein just sort of appears in the background of his introductory shot, always listening, always desperate to worm his way in to whatever The Next Big Thing could be. Neither man ever really stops pushing forward to get to the bottom of the Watergate break-in to analyze just what they are doing and what it could mean, or what havoc they might be wreaking on the people they talk to, the ones who ominously explain “They’re watching.” Who’s watching? And what happens if they are? Who knows? That’s not the film’s purview.
Any big picture ideas are left to Woodward and Bernstein’s editor, Ben Bradlee, a sly performance by Jason Robards that rightfully won him an Oscar, who generally has his feet up on the table, wielding authority by hanging back, talking tough but acting cool, laughing off challenges even as he gravely assesses the reality of each one. A key sequence happens in a meeting where Bradlee’s Foreign Editor (John McMartin) calls the story, if there is one, “dangerous.” Although Bradlee seems to casually ignore this comment, once everyone else is out of the room, he asks “How dangerous?” The Foreign Editor gives an explanation summarized in his final two lines: “I don’t believe the story. It doesn’t make sense.”
I’d be lying if I said my decision to rewatch “All the President’s Men” was not made wholly in the wake of America’s most prominent figurehead declaring the press “is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American people.” But, of course, that’s not really true. If the press is anyone’s enemy, it’s the President’s and that is because so often a disconnect exists between the President and the press, with the former trying to use the latter to shape his message and the latter trying to see through the spin of the message to deliver it unvarnished to the American people.
This battle is not new with Trump; it has been waged by numerous past Presidents. The danger in the press, however, especially if the President grows confronfational, is to try and shape truth rather than simply get to the truth. As no less an authority than Walter Lippmann once explained, “The function of news is to signalize an event, the function of truth is to bring to light the hidden facts, to set them in relation with each other and make a picture of reality.” That, in essence, is what Woodward and Bernstein do in “All the President’s Men.” They are obligated, as each hidden fact is brought to light, to follow their story all the way to the end in order to make a picture of reality so the public, to whom the President, any President, must answer, can step back and study it and decide for themselves what they think. The movie ends with Nixon being sworn in once again as Woodward and Bernstein put the finishing touches on their story in advance of setting it free. Whatever’s gonna be will be.
The best shot in the movie doubles, oddly enough, as product placement. In the background, a small television is turned to the Republican National Convention where Nixon is renominated. In the foreground is an Olympian typewriter where Woodward frenetically hacks away. There is no sign of the public, only the press and the politicians locked in their cage. The war rages on.