I’m surprised, and in a way a little ashamed, that I haven’t had this film in my collection long before now. After all, it marked a turning point in my life, perhaps not as extensively as did JusticeLeague of America 37, but certainly as much as starting to read The Lord of the Rings from Didsbury Library.
From 1980 to 1983 I worked in my first job as a fully-qualified Solicitor, at a small, two-man branch office in Romiley, a village-like part of Stockport, to the south east of the centre. Early in 1981, and at my expense, we started renting an old, top-loading VHS video recorder from Granada, from whom our TV was also rented. Towards the back end of that year, a video rental shop opened up in Romiley, and I became a member, in order to hire a film for each weekend. My first choice was All The President’s Men.
I was not, then, the political enthusiast I became. I had lived through Watergate, and Nixon’s resignation, but they had been background noise rather than anything I was interested in. My first, nascent sense of American politics came indirectly through comics: I kept reading references to something incredibly hip called Doonesbury, which intrigued me. In the summer of 1981, I saw a Doonesbury omnibus volume in Wilshaws (a much-missed City Centre bookshop), at only £2.95, enough of a snip in an era when expenses were few and salary decent, to take a flyer on. I loved it, but it was full of references to things I knew nothing about.
All three of us sat down to watch All The President’s Men, and all three of us were impressed. This might have been October/November.
In theJanuary of 1982, I found a good condition paperback of the book in a long-vanished second-hand bookshop on Shudehill, just down from the bookstalls. I read it, surprised firstly to learn that the book went on some distance beyond the period of the film, but not as far as Nixon’s resignation. For that, I needed thesequel, ‘The Final Days’ and for that I went back to Wilshaws. I have those copies still.
And they contained references to things I was still ignorant of, not least to the famous ‘Joe Welch moment’. So I started hunting in the American History section of the Library, most often at Central Ref, where the selection was more widespread. My first choice, a book about the McCarthy era, was dull and dry, but I struck gold with my second choice, David Halberstam’s classic ‘The Best and the Brightest’, a long but absorbing account of the generation of men who took America into the Vietnam War. In time, I would suck that section dry.
All because I rented this film on VHS.
I know a tremendous amount about the making of All The President’s Men. The screenplay was by William Goldman, and I had heard of but not yet read his legendaey ‘Adventures in the Screen Trade’, which I urge on anyone with the least interest in the film industry. There’s a very lengthy section in that book about this film, so I know a lot of the twists and turns.
What I know most of all is that Goldman was passionate, almost obsessive, about not ‘Hollywooding-up’ the material. The Watergate Affair, and what it revealed about the conduct of Government in those years (which is of direct relevance to the antics of the current incumbent, even if only to demonstrate how much smarter Tricky Dickie was in comparison) was of massive importance to the history of any country and not least of America, the self-proclaimed (and sometimes actual) bastion of democracy. With all the power a scriptwriter can have, i.e., bugger all, he was insistent that the film be true to the material, that it be accurate, that none of it should be sensationalised, that it stand as close to the historical record as the reduction of nearly six months’ patient, detailed and often frustrating investigation could be.
For the benefit of anyone under forty, let me summarise Watergate. In thesummer of 1972, with President Richard Nixon certain to be nominated by the Republican Party as their candidate for re-election in November, five men were arrested trying to break-in to the Democratic Party Headquarters at the Watergate Hotel complex in Washington. Junior Washington Post reporter, Bob Woodward, was assigned to cover routine arraignment, but became interested in some unusual details. Working in collaboration with fellow junior reporter, Carl Bernstein, Woodstein (asthe two were bracketed at the paper) doggedly pursued a non-story until it revealed a massive story of corruption, manipulation, and undermining of the Constitution that eventually led all the way to the top. All the way.
Woodstein’s investigations ultimately led to the revelation that President Richard Nixon had knowingly ordered the cover-up of criminal acts (of which he probably did not know in advance) in direct violation of his Oath of Office. Despite resistance and denial stretching across two years, Nixon eventually became th first and only President to resign his office.
Thanks to two nobodies, regarded by their paper as no-hopers.
The film was directed by Alan J Pakula, and starred two of the biggest film stars of the time, Robert Redford as Woodward and Dustin Hoffman as Bernstein. Jason Robards performs a show-stealing supporting role as Post Editor Ben Bradlee.
The film is, indeed, what Goldman wanted of it. Though you’re always conscious that these are *Robert Redford* and *Dustin Hoffman*, they do inhabit their roles comfortably, without histrionics or emoting. The entire film is naturalistic, and the intercutting of television scenes showing the real-life politicians is markedly grainy in contrast, but not excessively so.
It’s a mark of the film’s intentions that, when the Post refused permission to film in their newsroom, the film’s designers measured everything to the last inch and constructed an exact replica in Burbank, complete with the identical brand of desks, repainted, and reconstructions of out-of-date telephone directories from the time period in question.
Neither Hoffman nor Redford, and definitely not the script, goes deep into Woodstein as people. Both actors play then ccorsing to the details they giveof themselves in the book, but the investigation is the thing. That is the story, that is the film, and nobody is going off-reservation to blur the essentials.
At Goldman’s decision, the film cuts out the entire, incomplete second half of the book. The film needs a structue and the structure needs an ending, not a tailing off. The story ends on the pair’s biggest mistake, a revelation that is actually true in fact but predicated on a mistake of attribution. It might seem a strange place to stop, but Goldman argued that the audience knew it wasn’t the end, just a set back, and it’s the nearest thing to a conclusion this side of Nixon’s resignation.
But what the film does end on is Woodstein and the Post’s decision to carry on. A shot of the pair, typing at separate desks, alone at night in the newsroom, merges into the same newsroom by day, full of people. It’s Nixon’s re-inauguration, playing live on the newsroom TVs, and everyone stops work and gathers to watch, except Woodstein, at their desks, the camera edging in so that we see Nixon swear on a bible in the left of the screen and thereporters type in the right.
Then that telex shot of guilty pleas and verdicts, of names we’ve heard throughout the film. Pakula and Goldman kept all the watergate conspirators off-screen, voices at the ends of telephones, a superb decision not to distract the audience with actors playing faces they know.
Is it true? The film is faithful to the book, which most people regard as being faithful to the facts, a position emphasised by that list of convictions. One scene isn’t, imported from an alternate script by Carl Bernstein and Nora Ephron, where Bernstein fakes his way into a secretary’shouse to worm answers out of her. Nor is the famous phrase, now trope, ‘Follow the Money’.
But it feels true. As true as a film can ever be. It feels solid, grounded, rooted. It feels like what it must have been like, and without having lived that history as a fly on the wall, you can’t say more than that. These were the people, these were the times, these were the events. Watch them, learn from them, be thankful that a time existed when something like this could be done, because there won’t be anything of this quality or verisimilitude about the current President of the United States of America.