CLASSIC CINEMA 13: ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN
THERE’s something reassuringly analogue about Alan J Pakula’s mid-70s classic.
Set in a time long before the digital revolution changed newspapers, journalism and public life irrevocably, it’s a salutary tale about how the press can still bite anyone in the bum – no matter how high.
That ability has never changed, only the medium by which such bum-biting is delivered, but in an age in which the press has now had its own backside massively bitten itself – thanks to the phone hacking scandal – one can’t help but note how much has changed since the days of Bernstein and Woodward, the likeable duo of Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford in the film.
In a complex plot, Redford and Hoffman, reporters on the Washington Post, a regional newspaper with national influence, hear of the break in the Watergate building, the national Democratic headquarters.
President Richard Nixon - of whom Woody Allen remarked: ‘Every time he left the White House, the Secret Service would count the silverware’….is running for re-election, and the duo investigate the seemingly hum-drum break-in.
Surprised that the burglars have classy legal counsel, and that at least one of them is a former CIA employee, the boys scent the whiff of a mystery.
Woodward learns that the five men, four Cuban-Americans from Miami and James W. McCord, Jr., had bugging equipment. Woodward connects the burglars to E. Howard Hunt, also former employee of the CIA, and President Richard Nixon's Special Counsel Charles Colson.
Woodward contacts "Deep Throat" (Hal Holbrook), a senior government official, an anonymous source he has used in the past.
Communicating through copies of The New York Times and a balcony flowerpot, they meet in a parking garage in the middle of the night. Deep Throat speaks in riddles and metaphors about the Watergate break-in, but advises Woodward to "follow the money."
Over the next few weeks, in a series of laid-back but compelling journalistic investigations, both on the phone and on the journalistic beat, using old fashioned door-stepping, Woodward and Bernstein connect the five burglars to thousands of dollars in diverted campaign contributions to Nixon's Committee to Re-elect the President (CRP, or CREEP).
Editor Bradlee (Jason Robards in a magnificent role) and others at the Post dislike the two young reporters' reliance on unnamed sources like Deep Throat, and wonder why the Nixon administration would break the law when the President is likely to defeat Democratic nominee George McGovern.
Through former CREEP treasurer Hugh W. Sloan, Jr. (Stephen Collins), Woodward and Bernstein connect a slush fund of hundreds of thousands of dollars to White House Chief of Staff H. R. Haldeman—"the second most important man in this country"—and former Nixon Attorney General John N. Mitchell, now head of CREEP.
They learn that CREEP used the fund to begin a campaign to sabotage Democratic presidential candidates a year before the Watergate burglary, when Nixon was behind Edmund Muskie in the polls. The tension builds and builds until the biggest story of all breaks.
There are at least three thrilling moments in the film, aside from Redford’s conversations with Deep Throat: when Redford, sat at his reporter’s desk, speaks to a number of contacts - sometimes on ‘hold’ - who reveal details of the slush fund; the scene in which Hoffman waits a whole day to speak to a contact who reveals the massive size of the fund, and finally the scene in which Hoffman counts from one to ten on the phone when hoping for a sign from a key contact as to whether the killer story can be run or not.
The story behind the film is just as fascinating as the story which is revealed in such.
Robert Redford bought the rights to Woodward and Bernstein's book in 1974 for $450,000 with the notion to adapt it into a film with a budget of $5 million.
Post editor Ben Bradlee realized that the film was going to be made regardless of whether he approved of it or not and felt that it made "more sense to try to influence it factually" and the executive editor of the Washington Post hoped that the film would have an important impact on people who bore a negative stereotype of newspapers.
William Goldman was hired by Redford to write the script in 1974. Goldman delivered his first draft in August 1974 and Warner Bros agreed to finance the movie.
Redford later claimed he was not happy with Goldman's first draft. Woodward and Bernstein also read it and did not like it.
Redford asked for their suggestions but Bernstein and then-girlfriend writer Nora Ephron wrote their own draft.
Redford showed this draft to Goldman, suggesting there might be some material they could use: Redford later reportedly expressed dissatisfaction with the Ephron-Bernstein draft, saying, ‘a lot of it was sophomoric and way off the beat’.
According to Goldman, "in what they wrote, Bernstein was sure catnip to the ladies".
He also says a scene of Bernstein and Ephron's made it to the final film, - the one where Bernstein outwits in order to see the man who had key information about the size of the slush fund—something which didn't happen in real life, apparently.
Alan J. Pakula was then hired to direct and requested rewrites from Goldman.
Redford and Pakula held all-day sessions working on the script, the director also spent hours interviewing editors and reporters, taking notes of their comments.
Claims that Pakula and Redford rewrote the screenplay have been debunked, however, after an investigation into the matter by Richard Stayton in Written By magazine.
Stayton compared several drafts of the script, including the final production draft, and concluded that Goldman was properly credited as the writer and that the final draft had "William Goldman's distinct signature on each page."
Dustin Hoffman and Redford visited the Post offices for months, sitting in on news conferences and conducting research for their roles.
The Post denied the production permission to shoot in its newsroom and so set designers took measurements of the newspaper's offices, photographed everything, and boxes of trash were gathered and transported to sets recreating the newsroom on two soundstages in Hollywood's Burbank Studios at a cost of $200,000.
The filmmakers went to great lengths for accuracy and authenticity, including making replicas of phone books that were no longer in existence.
Nearly 200 desks at $500 apiece were purchased from the same firm that sold desks to the Post in 1971. The desks were also coloured the same precise shade of paint. Principal photography began on May 12, 1975 in Washington, D.C.
Typewriters, carbon copies, basic photocopiers, and directories are still much in evidence, and the desk divisions for each section of the paper. There are no computers in sight. Draft stories are handed from typewriter to in-trays to be edited by sub-editors.
Perhaps the most important tale for those who now question the value of newspapers and reporters is their ability to question and research, despite the immense changes which have hit the industry.
In one chilling scene, in which Bradlee and the duo meet outside their own homes when they learn their homes have been bugged, and through Deep Throat, that ‘their lives might be at risk’, Bernstein and Woodward reveal that Watergate was just effectively a sideshow and that the spread of the Nixon administration’s covert operations had crept into the intelligence agencies of the CIA, the FBI, the judiciary and many areas of public life.
In the 1970s, bogged down in Vietnam, and then hit by the Nixon scandal, it’s easy to see how the American people, who thought their type of democracy infallible, might have begun to lose faith in the whole system. Pakula’s film probably just rubber-stamped that feeling and it might actually be the blueprint from the conspiracy paranoia which has become prevalent in some sectors of society since – perhaps justifiably so.
If the notion that ‘everyone is watching everyone else’ all sounded incredulous in the 1970s, and shattered the illusion of the government and a democracy ‘of the people, by the people, for the people’, in this digital age, in which search engines record your every move, and ‘cookies’ your landing pages, covert data taps occur at high levels, and in which a vast amount of private data is willingly sent to social media by users daily, it’s easy to see how a Nixon-type covert surveillance operation – this time of the whole populous – could happen.
It might be fiction, but the biggest shock to those viewers of Pakula’s film in 1975 must have been that government - or more accurately, those politicians who run such in the pursuit or maintenance of power - could be, and were, very corrupt, and would seemingly stop at nothing to discredit the opposition to maintain a grasp on power.
In this age of ‘digital freedoms’, it couldn’t happen again, surely? But then again, where does the real power now lie, 40 years on from Watergate? With the government, with the people, with the press, or in the ‘icloud’? Perhaps it has all become such a media ‘buzz’ that it remains shrouded.
Amongst such a cloud of information and disinformation, if phone hacking was the nadir of the press, perhaps Woodward and Bernstein’s work was the absolute zenith.
Some have even questioned the reason the burglars were in Watergate in the first place; while seemingly a fact finding mission to arm the Republicans against the Democrats, some have mused that the burglars might have been there to eradicate evidence relating to the catastrophic events which happened in America in 1963, in which speculated low level Mob links might have lead to higher implications.
Perhaps a cover up of a cover up, while a tantalising thought, is beyond the realms of imagination – but equally the security guard who first reported the unlocked door at the Watergate building – featured in person at the start of the film - could never have imagined the political butterfly effect which he had unwittingly set in motion.