All The President’s Men: A Lesson in Doggedness and Democracy
“The only security of all is in a free press.”
― Thomas Jefferson
It does not take a great movie like All the President’s Men to remind us of the continuing importance of investigative journalism but remind us it does. The movie dramatizes how the unraveling of the Watergate debacle by two young reporters - Carl Bernstein & Bob Woodward of The Washington Post - led to President Nixon’s decision to resign rather than face impeachment. The need for such reporting clearly resonates today, but while the movie of today is yet to be made, there’s an interesting back story to learn as to how and why All the President’s Men came to the big screen.
In 1972 Robert Redford had just finished another prescient political film - The Candidate, and while promoting that movie, he read an article about two young reporters at The Washington Post who were investigating the mystery of a break-in at Democratic National Headquarters in Washington DC at the Watergate Hotel. Redford explained later:
“I read this small article on who these two guys were. It said, '...well, one guy is a Jew, the other guy is a WASP. One guy’s a Republican, the other one is a liberal. One guy writes very well, the other guy doesn’t write so well. They don’t like each other, but they have to work together.' and I thought, that’s a really an interesting dynamic.”
— Michael J Gaynor, Washingtonian [All the President’s Men: An Oral History 4/13/2016]
The two young reporters in question, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, were, at first, reluctant to meet with Redford, and “Go Hollywood,” but their reluctance was assuaged when Redford guaranteed that the movie would be faithful to the reporters’ own account of their experiences in their book All the President’s Men (published in 1974 by Simon & Schuster) - they even used the same title, but what about the reactions of The Washington Post’s editor, publisher & other reporters? Tom Shales, TV Critic for The Washington Post said in 2016, “We were told to be irreverent, and unrelentingly so. Not to attack the Hollywood people but just to make sure we weren’t in awe of them. There was this anxiety around the paper about not surrendering to Hollywood’s lure.”
“Roles are being suddenly reversed here; actors are going to be reporters and reporters are onstage, playing themselves for the observing actors (doing research). Normalcy is disrupted, simple privacy invaded…” —The Washington Post (4/11/’75).
From Redford’s point of view, there were other challenges as well:
“Woodward was really a tricky guy. I’d say to him, ‘Bob, you seem like a pretty dull guy,’ and he says, ‘...that’s right, I am.’ And I said, ‘That’s not great for me to play.’ [He says] ‘No, I’m telling you, Carl’s the exciting guy. I’m not interesting at all…”
“After I’d spent a lot of time with Bob, I realized that that part of Woodward, that kind of flat…gentle, slow-talking manner, was basically a front for a person with a killer instinct. So that’s when I realized I did, in fact, have something to play…”
Along with finding ways to accurately portray the actors, Redford and his team wanted verisimilitude. Carl Bernstein caught on to this - “Both Redford and Hoffman did more than shadow us for a few months: they kind of half-lived with us” he said, “He [Hoffman] kind of became a reporter…he studied the relationships I had, my history…”
Walter Coblenz, the film’s Producer, remembers that when “Bradlee, Woodward and Bernstein came [to visit the set,] and they couldn’t believe what they saw.” He said that “Bradlee went right to his ‘office’ and started to look through the bookshelf and said, ‘These are my books!’”
Such backstories reveal how good movies are made, particularly those about important subjects, but this film captures more than just what good reporting is all about - the time, effort, and sheer doggedness - it also shows why people are willing to talk to reporters.
Jon Boorstein, the Associate Producer calls it, “The confessional urge…it’s about people calling up their better selves.” Boorstein feels that it was also Director Alan Pakula’s great insight that gave the movie its humanity and made it come alive.
All the President’s Men will kick off MOVIES MAKE THE NEWS, a film series to celebrate 125 Years of The Lakeville Journal, at The Moviehouse on Wednesday, August 17th at 6:30 PM.
Guests are encouraged to come at 5:30 and enjoy a drink at the bar before Lakeville Journal Editor-in-Chief and Publisher, Janet Manko, introduces the film. For more information on the series and to purchase tickets visit themoviehouse.net. Tickets are also available at the box office.
Barbara Maltby is a film and television producer whose credits include The American President (1995); A River Runs Through It (1992) and King of the Hill (1993).