‘All the President’s Men’ at 45: The Greatest American Movie about Journalism
All the President’s Men is a movie about a specific thing — the investigation by Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein into the Watergate scandal, which to this day remains the only time in American history that journalists brought down a president.
But while the story of Watergate is foundational for boomers, the All the President’s Men book, and the 1976 movie that followed, has remained relevant nearly a half-century later, for many reasons.
All The President’s Men, which was released 45 years ago this week, still matters to both aspiring and veteran journalists, and it will still matter as long as there are presidents who engage in massive wrongdoing. One particular side of the political spectrum, after all, will always dream of the events of the movie being reenacted, at the expense of the modern-day bad president.
Beyond all that, it’s just a flat-out great movie, a tick above The Insider as the best American movie about journalism.
The film, directed by Alan J. Pakula from a screenplay by the great William Goldman, does the practically impossible — it builds a compelling narrative out of scene after scene of mostly men in suits talking in rooms, in a plot that every single person who’s watching the film knows is going to turn out in a specific way. It gets journalism right, it gets the source/reporter relationship right, and the reporter/editor one.
Like in most movies, the movie stars are much better looking than the real people they’re playing. But Redford and Hoffman nail the roles of the two reporters, who essentially stumbled into the Watergate case when Woodward witnessed one of the burglars enter his plea and mention that he had worked for the CIA. (The anniversary coincides with the death, earlier this week, of Watergate break-in mastermind G. Gordon Liddy).
Over and over again, Goldman’s script draws compelling scenes out of things like reporters tracking down the origins of a check, waiting all day in a waiting room for an appointment. And of course, it nailed what it’s like to meet the approval of an exacting editor:
All the President’s Men had a major influence on subsequent movies, both about Watergate and about journalism. The 1999 satire Dick was a near-constant riff on All The President’s Men, all the way up to the little girls standing in for Deep Throat. The Post, Steven Spielberg’s Pentagon Papers movie, was an unofficial All The Presidents Men prequel, and the main reason the Liam Neeson-starring biopic of the actual Deep Throat, Mark Felt, largely failed, was because it couldn’t match the intensity of Hal Holbrook‘s scenes as the famed informant, which coined the phrase “follow the money”:
I’ve always been partial to the scene in the film in which Bernstein meets Donald Segretti, who explains the way things got out of hand, leading to his explanation of the term “ratfucking”:
The film doesn’t depict Nixon’s entire fall, but rather lays out the resignation with a montage of Woodward and Bernstein typing about major events of convictions, guilty pleas and resignations, over the footage of Nixon’s second inauguration. I didn’t quite get it when I first saw the film, as a very young ’90s Watergate buff, but I’ve really grown to appreciate it over the years as one of the great movie endings:
Over 45 years, there’s been plenty of analysis of All the President’s Men. Goldman, its screenwriter, told lots of great stories about the production in his books, and podcaster Blake Howard did an expansive podcast last year called “All the President’s Minutes,” which went through the movie minute by minute.