Great political movies (No11) – All the President’s Men

The early 1970s was a strange time in America. After the free-love and civil rights movement of the 60s, the 70s saw a general mood of paranoia settle over the country. To be fair there was a lot to be paranoid about. The Vietnam War was slowly winding down and America found itself on the losing side for once. The Kent State massacre was still fresh in everyone’s mind along with the brutal Manson killings. Richard Nixon has won a huge victory in 1972 and appeared hellbent on taking revenge on anyone who’d ever wronged him. It seemed like the country was slowly tearing itself apart. In 1972  several men were discovered trying to break into the National Democratic Party headquarters, which was based in the Watergate hotel complex. As the facts behind the crime began to emerge, things became a whole lot stranger.

The phrase ‘conspiracy that goes straight to the top’ is probably an overused one in thrillers these days, but in this case it absolutely applies. The movie tells the true story of two Washington Post reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein as they investigate the conspiracy behind the crime. Gradually they discover that the burglars have links to the government and the White House itself. As Woodward and Bernstein delve further into the murky world of Washington politics they find that the conspiracy was authorised and directed by those closest to the President.

If All the President’s Men had just been a regular thriller then it would probably have been quickly dismissed as being implausible. However, except for a few changes made for dramatic reasons the entire film is an accurate portrayal of the newspaper investigation. As such its one of the best ever films about how newspapers work (or used to), and the daily personal and ethical issues that journalists have to deal with. Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman are great as the two reporters although it helps that they’re surrounded by a very strong supporting cast including Jason Robards as their Editor Ben Bradlee.

The strange thing about watching All the President Men today is realising that it was filmed less than two years after the real events. Normally it takes several years or even decades after something has happened for Hollywood to dramatize it. Because this was filmed so soon after Nixon’s actual resignation it feels much more authentic than if they’d made it in the 80s or 90s. Of course Alan J  Pakula had form with this sort of thing. He’d already made the Parallax View and Klute which covered similar paranoid themes. Of course it’s not paranoia if they really are out to get you.

To a certain extent the film overemphasis the role of the media in Nixon’s downfall. The CIA, FBI, the Supreme Court and Congress had equally important parts to play but the media really helped shape the story in the public imagination. This was probably one of the high points of investigative journalism in the 20th century and shows what the medium can do when it really tries.

In terms of lasting impact the book/film gave the world the term ‘deepthroat’ to refer to a whistleblower (although I do realise they didn’t originate the phrase) and ‘Watergate’ itself. As a result every time there is a huge scandal now the word gate is usually added to it, sometimes for no good reason e.g. Iran Contra-gate, Whitewater-gate etc. Perhaps the films greatest achievement is that while making lots of money and winning four Oscars it proved that you could make a big budget, star filled, blockbuster while also making an intelligent political thriller at the same time. This is a lesson that seems to have been lost on a lot of modern Hollywood, as far too often they seem to regard the two things as being mutually exclusive which is our loss.

Here is the trailer:

About matthewashton

I'm a Politics Lecturer at Nottingham Trent University. I specialise in the fields of American, British and media politics.
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5 Responses to Great political movies (No11) – All the President’s Men

  1. What has always amazed me about this film is the stillness and subtlety of it. It is a movie entirely about two guys writing things down in their notebooks and talking to people, which should not be as engaging as it is. There are no armed gunmen or hit squads running around, but throughout the whole film there is a sense that something bad could happen at any moment. Pakula has a way of creating a feeling of impending doom. He does this throughout The Parallax View as well. It’s as if you feel that just out of the camera’s view their is someone monitoring everything happening, storing it away and using it to better calculate the weaknesses of the characters in order to destroy them. Maybe he had J. Edgar Hoover working as his Key Grip.

  2. I’m sure if they remade it today they’d feel compelled to include a car chase or something like that. I think the film is also good for showing the number of dead-ends that journalists run into and how boring the job can actually be (waiting for someone to ring you back with a crucial piece of information). Most modern films tend to made reporters’ lives look much more exciting and glamorous than the real thing.

    I like the Parallax View but find it a little bit on the long side, also the plot doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. The brain-washing montage is amazing though.

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