Throwback Thursday: All the President’s Men Report Responsibly

Throwback Thursday examines films from the past, “classic” films that might not be in the current cultural zeitgeist but can still be important, interesting, fun, or all of the above.

I would hazard a guess that everyone reading this has taken some form of American history. I would even bet that you’ve heard of Watergate, possibly even knowing that it was the start of the unraveling of a presidency. But other than knowing about how it affected Richard Nixon and his time in office, how much do you know about how Watergate fit in to that unraveling? I remember taking history in high school and just briefly glossing over Nixon. It was the late ’80s and early ’90s, and America was just starting to look at Vietnam with a more historical focus, so we were definitely not ready to discuss the intricacies of political scandals that were still fresh in our nation’s mind. For right or wrong, I relied on film to fill in the blanks for me, and that film was the Oscar-winning All the President’s Men.

Theatrical poster for All the President's Men

Theatrical poster for All the President’s Men.

At the time of the film’s release in 1976, the nation was still intimately aware of the stain on the President’s office, resulting in the first resignation in our Presidential history. The resignation happened two years prior in 1974, and the events that led up to that started in 1972. The film follows two Washington Post reporters, Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) and Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) as they decide to dig into a minor news story involving a break in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate office complex. It’s primarily a film about ethics in journalism and the quest for true and accurate reporting that just happens to be hung on the Watergate scandal.

Dustin Hoffman as Carl Bernstein and Robert Redford as Bob Woodward

This is how people sit when they’re working to uncover the truth.

Directed by Alan J. Pakula, the film has a sense of righteousness about it that is ingrained in Redford and Hoffman’s performances. These were good men doing good work. Backed by supportive editors (played convincingly by Jack Warden and Jason Robards), they want to get the story and get it right. Initially relying on gut instinct that there is something there, they investigate, interview, and fact check to make sure they can print it. In one brilliant sequence, we see a source tapdance around giving a definite answer that would link a White House chief of staff to illegal activities, then we see the reporters in their editor’s office saying it’s there, and he tells them they need to obtain another source that will go on record to confirm the connection. It sounds boring and matter of fact as I type it here, but from the screenplay by William Goldman (yes, the author of The Princess Bride) to Pakula’s direction to the cinematography by Gordon Willis (The Godfather) to the acting, it plays as intense and riveting.

The cast in the offices of the Washington Post

The truth is out there, gentlemen. Go get it.

The film clocks in at a little over two hours, but feels like it runs twice as fast when you’re watching it. Features like the source “Deep Throat,” advising the reporters to “Follow the money,” and even the suffix “-gate” have installed themselves in our pop culture lexicon. When every week it seems some news channel is hyping some new “gate” (there’s even a Wikipedia page dedicated to all the “gate” suffixes), we take for granted the original scandal that coined the term. In fact, because it’s so overused, I think we should outlaw the suffix unless it revolves around the actual resignation or impeachment of a president . . . but that’s just me.

Woodward and Bernstein working on their case

A screen cap showing that not all the film’s scenes take place in the Washington Post offices.

We as a society rely heavily on our news sources, but it seems that for every investigative team like the Boston Globe’s Spotlight group (whose investigation into sexual abuse by Catholic priests in the Boston area was the focus of the 2016 Best Picture Oscar winner Spotlight), we also have a horde of other news outlets that don’t fact check sources and rely on pandering, name calling, and outright lying to get a headline. Gone are the halcyon days where both sides of the political chasm could listen to and respect a newscaster like Walter Cronkite. I think we need films like All the President’s Men to show us the ideals we should strive for in our reporting and sharing of information. Aim for perfection, and if you don’t always hit it, at least you went past where you were.

This film can be found on both Blu-ray and DVD. It is currently available via Netflix, but streaming offerings change frequently, so keep an eye out. Feel free to discuss further in the comments below; just keep it respectful.

If you think there’s a film Throwback Thursday should cover in the future, please let me know in the comments.

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