Director: Alan J. Pakula
By Marilyn Ferdinand
As I pick through the daily helpings of mainstream-media-bashing, liberal- and conservative-bias-shaming and all the other pleasantries that instantly greet all the news that’s fit to tweet, I find myself longing for some remnant of truth, justice, and the American Way the way I used to know. I find one bright spot in the journalism conducted under the auspices of First Look, a self-described “new-model media company devoted to supporting independent voices” that coproduced the 2015 Best Picture Oscar winner Spotlight, which chronicles the Boston Globe’s 2001 exposé of the decades-long sexual abuse of children by scores of priests and the Boston Archdiocese’s attempts to cover it up. As you can imagine, movies about heroic journalists are rare as hen’s teeth these days, so whatever the merits of Spotlight—and I can argue that it has many—its appearance and relatively high profile at a time when lies and propaganda are degrading freedoms throughout the world are a blessing and a balm to me.
The newspaper movie, however, has had a long run in motion pictures, chronicling both the cynicism that characterized the early years of yellow journalism (Chicago ), as well as Fifth Estate crusading, both helpful (Deadline U.S.A. ) and harmful (Try and Get Me! [aka The Sound of Fury, 1950]). The inherent drama of headline news provides filmmakers with a constant supply of riveting material that offers audiences more bang for their buck for being at least partially true.
Arguably the most acclaimed and enduring of newspaper movies is Alan J. Pakula’s All the President’s Men (1976), based on the best-selling book by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, then reporters for the Washington Post, whose investigative reporting on the 1972 burglary of Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate office complex in Washington, D.C. , revealed a vast dirty-tricks conspiracy that eventually ended the presidency of Richard M. Nixon. I remember very fondly volunteering at my local PBS station to answer phones and take pledges during its rebroadcasts of the 319 hours of U.S. Senate Watergate Committee hearings, shown and aired live on the three major networks and NPR beginning May 17, 1973. An estimated 85 percent of the American public watched or listened to at least part of the hearings, and many people called in to express their thanks to PBS for giving them access to information about which they cared deeply. I don’t remember a single caller who attacked the effort, phoned in a bomb or death threat, or called me or PBS functionaries libtards. A lot of young people may not understand why “–gate” is appended to most public scandals these days, but for my generation, the Watergate scandal left a permanent mark and continues to reverberate, as extremists double-down to secure the power and national prestige lost following Nixon’s disgrace.
Just as Watergate changed the American political landscape, so, too, did Pakula’s film spread its influence far beyond the newspaper or political thriller. On TV, there has been a steady succession of small cells of true believers trying to right wrongs and uncover truths by any means necessary (“The X-Files,” “Person of Interest,” “Leverage,” “Burn Notice”). On the big screen, John Sayles’ Lone Star (1996) does a pretty good job of recreating the conspiracies and meticulous fact-finding of President’s Men in a western setting, and director Shane Carruth said his knockout scifi film Primer (2004) was directly influenced by the newspaper drama. Michael Mann’s Blackhat (2015) not only continues that director’s themes of outsiders combating power, but also appears to take inspiration from Pakula’s vision of a depopulated maze of streets and buildings that look, precomputer age, ever so much like Blackhat’s opening volley of digital circuitry. I might even go so far as to say that many of the superhero/comic book films would be nowhere without their “origin story”—newspaper funnies—and their focus on the courage of a few against the oppressions of the powerful.
All the President’s Men is, too, a product and exemplar of its time. The 1970s witnessed one of the greatest flowerings of American film culture, with more realistic, director-driven movies that mixed spectacle, elegance, and old-fashioned star power with a raw immediacy and violence for audiences weaned on the televised Vietnam War who wanted their entertainment to draw blood. Pakula avoids histrionics, but amps up the tension of his film, borrowing from Antonioni’s urban alienation and George Romero’s paranoia to paint a portrait of ultimate power as both dangerous and deeply stupid.
The opening sequence, the break-in itself, offers us a voyeuristic thrill reminiscent of Hitchcock’s tableau in Rear Window (1954), but more for stroking our own egos at observing how hopelessly inept the burglars were in planning their crime—drab men in ugly clothes duct-taping a door catch open and rifling through offices awash in light and open windows. Their tracks are detected easily by a lone security guard, who handily dispatches police to catch the burglars in the act. The only thing about this sordid event that catches Metro Editor Harry Rosenfeld’s (Jack Warden) attention is that the bust-in occurred at the Democratic Party’s national headquarters. Rookie reporter Bob Woodward (Robert Reford) is dispatched to attend the arraignment.
The burglary might have been buried for good inside the pages of the Post had Woodward not chatted up a white-shoe attorney (Nicolas Coster) observing the public defenders assigned to the case. The five men, four Cuban-Americans from Miami and James McCord, Jr., all testify to having ties to the CIA. The trail starts to warm up as former CIA worker and spy novelist E. Howard Hunt and Charles Colson, special counsel to the President, work into the chain of events. The National Desk starts angling to take over the story, and Metro reporter Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) worms his way onto the investigation by doctoring Woodward’s copy as soon as he turns it over to the copy desk. This scene—Bernstein’s underhanded, but skillful assistance and Woodward’s forthright approach in calling him on it—sets up the bad cop/good cop routine “Woodstein” will marshall when trying to get information out of reluctant informants.
Pakula offers the dynamics of the competitive news business as the pair watch the New York Times covering similar ground and finding new leads. Bernstein flies to Miami to follow up a NYT-prompted lead that payoffs from the Committee to Reelect the President were made to the Watergate burglars, waiting all day for Martin Dardis (Ned Beatty), chief investigator for the Dade County state attorney’s office, to show him a check written to one of the burglars. The scene shows the dodged determination of Bernstein to reach his goal, including making a phony call to Dardis’ honey-tongued watchdog (Polly Holliday) to get her off her guard station in front of Dardis’ office.
Pakula uses a sort of Shakespearean construction of deep drama alternating with comic moments to keep the audience on a rollercoaster of tension and release, an effective strategy for a story whose momentous outcome was known years before. Foremost is the character of Deep Throat (Hal Holbrook), now known to be W. Mark Felt, associate director of the FBI at the time of the break-in. He had been an occasional deep background source to Woodward and kept him on track with Watergate, meeting with him in a parking garage to talk. The archetype of the oracle is an ancient one, and cinematographer Gordon Willis’ shadowy underlair suggests a plot born from Hell, pulling the film out of the everyday and marking it with mythic dimensions. Holbrook’s Deep Throat gives up his secrets grudgingly, dismissing Woodward with vague aphorisms like “follow the money” to avoid more pointed information that would lead to some deep damnation or other. Eventually, he reveals that lives are at risk, giving Pakula an opportunity to release audience tension by shooting Woodward rather comically whiplashing around to look over his shoulder as he walks away.
Pakula will raise and lower tensions again as Bernstein interviews a frightened bookkeeper (Jane Alexander) who oversaw payments to the network of dirty tricksters taking orders from Attorney General John Mitchell and Nixon’s chief of staff, H. R. Haldeman. The scene is an understated cat-and-mouse game, beginning with the bookkeeper standing behind a prisonlike banister in a corner of a room and moving to a different corner, this time created by Bernstein and her own desire to tell the truth. Bernstein approaches her as though she were a coiled cobra, moving slowly to “refresh” his memory with his notebook and accepting her offers of coffee. The scene ends in antic merriment when Bernstein goes to Woodward’s apartment with his notes after consuming 20 cups of coffee from his six-hour marathon interview.
Spotlight took a clear inspiration from President’s Men in its depiction of churches as part of the Boston landscape through which the Globe reporters pounded the pavement. Here, there are numerous shots of Woodward and Bernstein driving past the White House, the endpoint of their inquiry, though they didn’t know it from the start. Willis favors high overhead shots to emphasize the informational maze through which the heroes must travel. One famous shot shows the pair in the mandala that is the Library of Congress, rifling through stacks of library slips. Willis also likes long shots of the wide-open city room, often nearly empty, as though to emphasize the egalitarian and transparent nature of news reporting. In retrospect, it also emphasizes how reporters were always out in the community and how news-gathering has shifted today to online research conducted in remote fashion.
Of particular note is the movie’s Oscar-winning sound design, which emphasizes a strong, muscular, determined group of professionals plying their trade with machines whose metal keys punch ink onto paper. It’s a distinctive and percussive sound, and emphasizes why I find so annoying the anemic, plastic clicking of the computer keyboards that have taken over from the typewriters and teletype machines in life—and especially in the movies. Coins ring into pay phones, telephone dials spin and click, stereo knobs click on and off—there are a whole range of sounds that are nearly lost to us today that make a more direct connection between the characters and their actions, and that immediacy also quickens the heart of the moviegoer.
So, too, does the thoroughness of the reporters. Today, lies are reported more routinely that facts in some circles—we live in an age of the gossip rag—but corner-cutting was not Executive Editor Ben Bradlee’s style. Jason Robards, as Bradlee, tells his reporters that their verifications (at least two) feel thin, he checks their desire to run with what they’ve got. It’s no good if it isn’t true, can’t be proven to be true. Predictably, one of their stories brings a denial from a high-profile source—even though the facts are right, the circumstances of their discovery were not reported properly—and a dramatic dressing-down from Bradlee. Can you imagine that happening today?
Hoffman and Redford are iconic in these roles, but they really did seem born to play these men. Scrappy, energetic Hoffman channels just a bit of his Ratso Rizzo sleaze from Midnight Cowboy (1969), marrying it to ambition and the good sense to let Woodward take the high ground when needed. Redford has us on his side all the way, his blond good looks and low-pressure style encouraging people to volunteer information they initially refused to divulge. A vast supporting cast keeps the film moving in a dizzying, but never incoherent way. One performance of note is Robert Walden as Donald Segretti, a “ratfucker,” that is, a dirty-tricks purveyor who was, no doubt, the idol of the king of the ratfuckers, Lee Atwater. I found his story of giving up on a law career for something more lucrative and, to him, the equivalent of moral mischief, an interesting and always timely one. Walden would go on to play a wily Bernsteinesque reporter teamed with a sensitive Woodwardlike journalist in the TV series “Lou Grant” (1977-1982), another great work that must have owed its very existence to All the President’s Men.