All the President’s Men (1976)
All the President’s Men codifies historical events (and more interestingly, the public figures of those historical events) much like its millennial grandson The Social Network (2010). When I think about Mark Zuckerberg, I see Jesse Eisenberg. The same goes for All the President’s Men. If I imagine Bob Woodward, I immediately conjure up images of 1970s Robert Redford. The movie succeeds because of its ability to graft fictional liberties over a historical timeline. The Hollywood-ized idea of Watergate is more compelling than Watergate itself.
The movie tackles the mightiest political challenge of its time, but never puts the cart before the horse. Only at the very end do Woodward and Bernstein even consider the reality that the conspiracy climbs all the way to the top of the White House. This subverts audience expectations. We already know how the scandal concludes. Yet, All the President’s Men does not sink under the weight of the complexity of its political story. It is easy to become overwhelmed and confused and lost in the details of who works for whom, and who paid whom, but the movie is bound together by its strong structure. After the opening Watergate sequence, the movie moves along very quickly. By the 30-minute mark, I found myself wondering just how I got there. I was unable to trace the narrative steps of the journey so far, but I didn’t care because William Goldman is a genius.
He structures the movie around Woodward and Bernstein (and later Bradlee) and essentially plays Jaws with Nixon. Nixon is treated like a monster lurking beneath the surface who is mostly tidily hidden off screen. The trick turns the story into a tale of David (the reporters) versus Goliath (the government) from the perspective of the Davids.
Goldman’s script digs even deeper. He breathes life into the mundane normalcy of newspapers and journalism. It is not dissimilar to what Aaron Sorkin does with coding and programming in The Social Network. The culture of newspapers (or tech) is established early and consistently. The newsroom builds and buzzes and eventually elevates from pure background into something simmering with atmosphere. Consequently, the central characters, enabled by their agency, feel more dimensional. The Washington ecosystem influences the actions of the characters, while simultaneously being influenced by them.
Woodward is never doubted as a hero. His motivations are nothing more than to shed light upon the truth. In less capable hands, a character like that would definitively suck. But Goldman juxtaposes Woodward with Bernstein in a sportsy kind of way. The back-and-forth between Woodward and Bernstein is akin to a tennis match between Federer and Nadal — different styles that actually make watching how the other person reacts to them much more interesting. Later, the reporting competencies of Woodward and Bernstein are juxtaposed against the initial assumptions about them not being “serious” reporters. Again, like sports, the newcomers have to earn the respect of the veterans on the team…especially Ben Bradlee.
Jason Robards is a force who bends story-gravity and warps the movie’s space-time fabric. His monologues and general vibe should be studied not just in film classes, but also in public speaking courses and leadership seminars. The richness of his Bradlee character turns the Woodward and Bernstein duo into a full-fledged triumvirate. Good thing he won an Oscar. Too bad for this movie that the Best Actor and Best Picture races were mind-blowingly stacked that year.
The movie hints and dabbles with paranoia and political drama, and that amount is ultimately a good thing. Anymore, and the story would lose momentum and veer too far off course from its heroes in the newsroom. The movie ends with Woodward and Bernstein continuing to press on with their investigation. It’s not that different from how The Social Network ends featuring Zuckerberg compulsively and repeatedly refreshing a page on Facebook. Mouse clicks instead of typewriter clacks. I have no idea if All the President’s Men shaped the trajectory of modern journalism, or if The Social Network shaped the blueprint for a 21st century technology company, but I like to believe they did.