All the President’s Men (Alan J. Pakula, 1976)

21Dec11

Dustin Hoffman (Bernstein), Robert Redford (Woodward). Screenplay by William Goldman. Directed by Alan J. Pakula. Rating: 15. Running time: 130 minutes.

All the President’s Men has a handful of lines which will pierce the mildest of political hearts. It’s enough that the film is about arguably the greatest – indisputably the most famous – instance of investigative journalism in world history, but when the insights into what transpired are this transparent, and when you realise how bold the Washington Post‘s formidable work was, it all threatens to become too much.

“Woodward, Bernstein, you’re on the story. Don’t fuck it up”. It sounds crazy, and it is, but at the time these two names, which have now become synonymous with all things Watergate and the exposure of wrongdoing, were simply unknown. Both were barely-out-of-grad-school journalists that would establish a lifetime’s reputation within a year. Hoffman is a delight. He smiles and flirts and extracts information whilst chain-drinking coffee and puffing fags, only stopping to ferociously tap away at his typewriter. Redford spends the film making calls, swirling the dials on those old machines and tediously tracking down numbers in the age of the phonebook rather than Facebook.

Yes, they did all this without Google. Instead there are meetings with mysterious whistleblowers late at night on dark car-parks, and the theme of the day, insofar as the film has anything to say about journalism rather than history, is undoubtedly anonymity. How do you get people to take a story seriously when you quote nameless sources? How can you get what you already intuitively know to be proven with a paper trail? What incentive can one give to get people to ‘go on the record’ when paranoia pervades all conversations, and those who say anything genuinely fear Tricky Dicky could get them written off? The battle is to break down the walls of the secretive peaks of the White House, and slowly but surely, as everybody now knows, Team Woodstein made their way to the top.

It’s slightly strange that the film remains so gripping when it severely lacks the sexiness of an investigative film like Fincher’s heavily stylised Zodiac. For a long time it almost plays like an all too real documentary, the camera dumped in the corner of the room directly facing a subject, Woodstein questioning and the fearful source answering. But as time moves on there’s more movement. Hoffman begins to run around the Post‘s offices and the camera starts sprinting too, the energy increasing as we reach the final shots of a typewriter bashing out the headline: Nixon resigns.

The other great line is when, in the middle of a fierce dispute about whether to print the latest explosive but then uncertain allegations, a deputy editor cries that he’s reluctant to criticise the Presidency because he happens to care for his country. Oh the irony. I’m reading Christopher Hitchens’ memoir at the moment, and in a chapter explaining why half way through his life he discovered an irresistibly fierce desire to become an American citizen, he mentions how in awe he was of the fact that in a country where the executive grew to think it was entitled to an unlimited domain of power, the institutions and checks and balances were so well designed that Congress, the Supreme Court, and, of course, the free press, still worked to bring the Administration down.

And Woodstein clearly knew that their activity was the real expression of American values. “They’re hungry”, observed one sub-editor, defending the choice to let them run with the story. Indeed they were.

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