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: