Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Cinema Bestius: All the President's Men

“I am not a crook.” -- President Richard Nixon

“I did not have sex with that woman.” -- President Bill Clinton

“Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction.” -- Vice President Dick Cheney

“Number One… I could be the most presidential person […] other than Abe Lincoln. He was pretty good…” -- Presidential candidate Donald Trump

“100% Real Parmesan Cheese” – Castle Cheese’s packaging label

#48 – All The President’s Men

The Pope has a long history with this film and its subject matter, going all the way back to when I was a little Pope in the fourth grade and my homeroom teacher wheeled a television monitor into the lunch room so that all of us kids could watch the Watergate hearings live. “Watch this carefully,” he said, “You are going to want to remember this.” He was right.

I can remember all the way back to first grade when Nixon ran for President against Hubert Humphrey. I was six. Humphrey seemed like a kindly uncle; Nixon scared the shit out of me. I can only conclude that I was either preternaturally ahead of the curve on this one or that in 1968, even a child could have told you that Nixon was a scary, evil felon. Hunter S. Thompson famously said that Nixon was so evil that even his funeral was illegal. I once took this to be a pithy one-liner, but it turns out that it is true. Nixon is buried in his own backyard at his estate in Yorba Linda, California. I am assuming that his family did not want to risk burying him in a public cemetery.
I mention all of this to admit my bias. I believe Nixon stole a part of this country’s soul that we have yet to get back. This is important. This matters. None of his wrongdoing would have come to light if it were not for two dogged, earnest investigative reporters who did the world a favor by uncovering the massive Watergate scandal. The ambition of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s investigation and the Washington Post’s trust in them cannot be overstated. Much like the recent Spotlight, when viewed today All the President’s Men forces us to mourn the lack of real investigative journalism in the 21st century.

Let’s go back again to April, 1976: I am now fourteen and about to see All the President’s Men at the Woodfield 1 & 2 theaters, where the screens were HUGE. I foolishly stop for popcorn before going into the theater. The movie is popular, my screening sells out, and I must sit in the first row. This is another measure of a great film. Even when watched in this vertebrae-punishing posture—staring straight up, as if the film is being projected onto the side of a high-rise building and I am a squirrel on the ground—the film works as an engaging narrative and as a meditation on dishonesty.
The Plot in Brief: On June 17, 1972, five burglars break into Democratic Party Headquarters in the Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C. Washington Post writer Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) is intrigued and writes a story. As the identities of the burglars are revealed, the story becomes more intriguing. Woodward continues to follow up and is eventually joined by fellow journalist Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman). The two are dogged in following every lead. Woodward attracts a “deep cover” source (Hal Holbrook) so afraid of repercussions that the two only meet in parking garages in the middle of the night. Woodward and Bernstein trace the scandal all the way to the White House. Did President Nixon mastermind an illegal break-in of Democratic Headquarters?

Producer/star Robert Redford, screenwriter William Goldman, and director Alan Pakula decided to throw out the second half of the national best-selling book they were adapting and shape the narrative as a detective story. All the President’s Men is deeply suspenseful, and this is one reason it stands up to repeated viewings. Movies based on fact that still retain suspense are a wonder to me. All the President’s Men shares this quality with Apollo 13 and the more recent Argo and The Big Short. We are watching something that really happened—we know those people escaped Iran in 1980, we know the economy tanked in 2008. Keeping us on the edge of our seats in these cases seems like a magic trick.
The performances in the film are so authentic it hurts. From Woodward’s tortured source “Deep Throat” (Hal Holbrook) to canny editor Ben Bradlee (Jason Robards) to frightened, mousy accountant Judy Hoback Miller (Jane Alexander) to conscience-stricken Hugh Sloan (Stephen Collins) to sleazy, delightful Donald Segretti (Robert Walden) the cast shines in a way that benefits the film and not their personal aggrandizement. Both Robards and Alexander were nominated for supporting Oscars. This was back in the day when, in Alexander’s case, an actor could get nominated for a single scene.

All the President’s Men’s Three Miracles: The verisimilitude of the Washington Post newsroom—a movie set built in Burbank, California that was so authentic, the production designers brought in real trash from the Post to fill the on-set wastebaskets; the filmmakers’ artful use of narrative and expository tools to make sure the audience is never confused (I believe their use of the teletype machine and its amplified cacophony for both prologue and epilogue is what won the film its “Best Sound” Oscar); and Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman’s career-best performances. No slouches they.
I am gratified and amused on a regular basis by some of the social change my advancing age allows me to witness. The election of our first black President and the legalization of marijuana are events that, quite frankly, I did not think I would live to see! I have also lived long enough to learn the real identity of “Deep Throat,” Bob Woodward’s mysterious Watergate source in All the President’s Men. Many theories were posited and many names discussed during the thirty years or so that this remained a secret. Some people thought it was future Secretary of Defense Alexander Haig; others thought it was Diane Sawyer, then working as a Nixon White House aide. In 2005, retired F.B.I special agent W. Mark Felt revealed that he, in fact, was Woodward’s whistle blower.

I now headily anticipate the revelation of even bigger secrets in the coming years. Who really killed Kennedy? Who is the subject of Carly Simon’s song “You’re So Vain?” Sure, she’s “admitted” it was Warren Beatty—but she also once joked it was Mark Felt! What exactly IS IT in Castle Cheese Company’s Parmesan Cheese that the Food and Drug Administration found NOT TO BE CHEESE? Actually, I know that one: it’s cellulose derived from wood pulp. But wood pulp does not taste like cheese, not even remotely. Only cheese tastes like cheese. Why is there so much wood pulp in the cheese? Is the government working on secret “cheese trees”? We need more investigative journalists in this country, and we need to put those journalists on this cheese story! As the Pope of Film, I so proclaim it worthy. Watch All the President’s Men at your earliest possible convenience and accompany the screening with some nice, smoked, pulp-free Gouda.

"In nomine Patrici, et Scorsese, qui mecum est Jai Beaie, Amen."


  1. A fascinating subplot in the movie is the ongoing debate about what can, and cannot, be inferred from what various sources are saying (and not saying). Woodward and Bernstein have several amusing conversations about this issue. As the movie goes on, the reporters get more and more reckless in their interpretation as to what constitutes “confirmation.” This culminates in their reporting that Sloan named Haldeman during his grand jury testimony, when he in fact did not. It’s interesting that the reporters conclude that they were somehow “tricked” into reporting this conclusion (“maybe they just hung us”), when in reality they made a dangerous assumption. The movie ends up saying that they might have made a mistake in their reporting, but they “weren’t wrong.” This is the same kind of justification used by CBS when they asserted that memos about George W. Bush’s national guard service may not have been authentic as they first reported, but that didn’t mean they were “wrong” in their conclusions. I am a firm believer in the value of investigative reporting (without that kind of digging, Errol Morris never would have uncovered the fact that Randall Adams had been railroaded in his film The Thin Blue Line), but I also believe reporters must be conscientious in their work.

  2. I've recently been interested in Watergate and the Nixon administration. I was stunned to learn that Nixon and his cronies knew Mark Felt had been leaking to the Washington Post almost from the beginning of the cover-up (they had a source of their own who spilled the beans). Because of Felt's high-level position, Nixon and Haldeman believed they could not out him without making things worse for themselves (they knew that Felt probably knew far more than what he was telling the Post).

  3. One more comment about the movie itself. All the President's Men isn't really known as a director's showcase, but there is one amazing shot about midway through, where the camera stays on Woodward during a marathon series of phone calls, finally culminating in Ken Dahlberg's revelation about giving a $20,000 check to Maurice Stans (head of finance for Nixon), and which ended up in Bernard Barker's account. The camera oh so slowly tracks in on Woodward as he gets Dahlberg to talk, and you can see him silently pray to himself when Dahlberg says "I probably shouldn't be telling you this..." It's a real nail-biter of a scene.

  4. Yes, it really is a showcase for Pakula. I also love the scene where Hoffman has to keep accepting coffee refills to stay in Alexander's house because her sister is being so polite. That scene is an actor's showcase.

  5. A wonderful piece, JB -- as befitting such a wonderful film. A document of its time & place as much as it has become a modern day indictment of, as you said, the terrible lack of/disgrace to journalism in these times.

    Anyone who hasn't seen it, really should. It's the best sort of entertainment; you are engaged by a fascinating story, well-told, but you also think and learn along the way. All while on the edge of your seat.

    Just a marvelous work, and a sterling example of what film can accomplish.

    1. I agree Albert, and Lindsay. I love these J.B. It makes me want to see this right now...

    2. I agree Albert, and Lindsay. I love these J.B. It makes me want to see this right now...

  6. I agree with Albert - a fantastic piece, watched it soon after watching spotlight - just they way the camera tracks through the news room as they run around trying to get people on the phone and the flying feathered 70s hair. The scene is incredibly tense. So good

  7. I can attest that this film was effective in encouraging myself and some bright-eyed comrades to stick with our Journalism degrees between the dismal years of 2008 and 2012.