This is post #24 in my series, 100 Movies … 100 Posts. In this ongoing series, I’m watching and writing about each film on the American Film Institute’s list of 100 greatest movies from #100 to #1. I’m not just writing a review of each movie. I am going to write a piece about whatever I find most pressing, as a critique of the film, an address of the issues it brings up, or my own experiences with the film. It will serve as an examination of the list itself and of political issues in Hollywood and the film industry.
Without further ado, #77 “All the President’s Men”
Journalism in entertainment is often presented as being much more glamorous than it is in real life. If you take a look at movies made about reporting, you’ll get a rather strange picture.
One movie most people might think of when you mention journalism is “Anchorman.” In a way, it’s not all that far off from what TV news was like back in the ’70s, but writing for a newspaper is a much different story. For one thing, most journalists don’t get all that excited about buying new suits.
Nor is reporting like it’s presented in the backstabbing world of “House of Cards.” I’m not saying there’s never been a rookie reporter who has fabricated an affair with a politician in order to blackmail him to scoop her coworkers and move up the chain, but it’s not exactly common practice to do so in a real newsroom.
Nor is it like what you would have seen in “Batman” (the Michael Keaton one). I’ve never seen a reporter wearing a hat with a slip of paper in it that says “press.” And they don’t usually use such sensationalistic leading questions that border on accusation. Or at least the good ones are probably a bit more subtle about it.
Nor is a newsroom as melodramatic as Aaron Sorkin presents it in “Newsroom.” If there was that much family-style drama between reporters as there are in that show, at least the editor-in-chief or executive producer would ask their employees to kindly take it outside in not so many words (and not so kindly).
But if you are interested in what it’s actually like to be a reporter, Alan J. Pakula’s “All the President’s Men” will give you a pretty good idea. Sure, not everyone gets to break the Nixon Watergate scandal, so for most reporters, life is a bit more mundane than that of Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman). And considering how boring some of the work is that they do in this movie, that’s saying something.
Of course, every big story starts as something small. For instance, it might start as something as seemingly insignificant as a break-in at a hotel. But regardless of how minuscule that insignificant event might be, it always starts at the most convenient time: After the reporter has already gone to bed. Usually when they get the call in the middle of the night, it means throwing on some clothes and a quick but futile attempt to make themselves look presentable (especially on such short notice) driving out to a crime scene or an accident or a fire, then hurrying into the office to try and get the story out before the paper goes to press, if possible (or maybe they can get it in the next run) around 3 or 4 in the morning. Does reporting still sound glamorous? Woodward gets the call, and he’s ready to see what’s up.
But he has a lead on something, and so the next day, he’s going to do what any good journalist does, and that’s follow up on it. That means heading to a court appearance for the guys who did the break-in, trying to pump anyone for information who’s willing to talk (as usual, no one). But he gets the slimmest of clues from a lawyer, so now it’s time to make some phone calls.
Making phone calls isn’t the greatest. Of course, now that we live in the Google age, it’s not nearly as bad as it would have been back in 1972. If a source refers you to someone else, and you don’t know who that is, you just go on the Internet and look it up. Before the Internet existed, however, it meant asking around for a phone number and fishing around to find out who the hell this person you’re calling is and what could they tell you about the story you’re working on. One person tells you to call another person, and that person tells you to call someone else. No one wants to talk to you because they want to keep sensitive information quite, not blab it all to the media, who is going to give that information to the public (and typewriters, oh my!).
Much of the film is Woodward and Bernstein making the rounds, talking to everyone who might possibly be have some pertinent information and who would actually be willing to talk to them. Woodward is a by-the-book kind of guy who is more than a bit green, but he always wants to do what’s right. He does have that fire in the belly that makes a good journalist. He wants to know the truth, and he’s going to keep digging until he gets what he’s looking for. He’ll listen to all of the run-around calls, and he’ll persist. Bernstein is a bit more of a bulldog. He’s pushy. If his sources don’t want to talk to him, he’ll find a way to get something useful out of them. Secretary keeping him from speaking to a big-wig? No problem. He’ll just bypass the secretary and burst into the guy’s office demanding answers. Together, they make a team, sort of like a good cop-bad cop tandem, but they don’t have any real jurisdiction to be investigating things the way they are.
That’s one thing that’s fascinating about the film and the real people who lived the events of the film. These reporters aren’t police. They’re just reporters, but in this case, they end up doing the police’s job, as powerful people in the CIA were in on the scandal too. But the only motivation these journalists have is to report the truth. It’s a tough line when you’re trying to decide how far you should be digging, and how much time you should be spending on any one story. If you’re reporting something ongoing or working on something more in-depth, then there’s no real stop sign. But at the same time, you’re still fighting daily deadlines, and you have to come up with something to contribute to keep readers interested in your story. In WoodStein’s (as their editor calls the duo) case you don’t know going out for the day if you’ll have something to bring back. Some days, you just strike out and there’s no story. The movie does a superb job of capturing the frustration, as well as the victories, of the reporters as they go about following the news trail.
And sometimes, it’s incredibly tedious work. WoodStein spends an entire day rifling through book request slips at the Library of Congress to try and find some new thread to break through when the trail is going cold. Days don’t get much duller than sitting in a library sorting through paper slips. If there’s any reason not to watch this film, it’s because of the tedium of the work. How many phone calls can one listen to? How many face-to-face interviews can one watch? If you weren’t paying attention during the actual unfolding of the Watergate scandal, how many of these names can one keep track of? But if you have any interest in the journalistic process, this is about as real as it gets in a dramatic presentation. And there are some fun moments to break up the monotony.
And sometimes, you only get somewhere by a stroke of luck. It’s interesting how cartoonish and bizarre Deep Throat (Hal Holbrook) is made out to be. It would be pretty strange to have to go meet up with someone in a parking garage in the middle of the night and have to take the man’s word that, as Ken Jeong’s Chang from “Community” would say, “This thing goes all the way to the very top!” It’s very thoughtful filmmaking how the informant at first sounds like a paranoid conspiracy theorist, whom today most people would brush off without a second thought. But then again, this was one case where the conspiracy turned out to be real. As the meetings progress and that realization sinks in, the skepticism turns to actual paranoia, and Woodward begins to fear for his life, especially as Deep Throat tells him the reporters are being watched, and that they are in fact, in danger.
For a modern point of reference, the 2007 film “Zodiac” was very similar in many ways. David Fincher did use “All the President’s Men” as inspiration for that film, and you can see many similarities in the way Jake Gyllenhaal’s character carries out his own investigation of the Zodiac killer. It’s a similar process he goes through in spending his time talking to so many different people, chasing leads and hitting dead ends. There’s one scene in that movie where Gyllenhaal finds himself talking to a man in his basement, when he gets a feeling of claustrophobia, knowing that he could be flirting with danger considering the subject matter of the story he’s pursuing, and realizing he has put himself in a vulnerable position, with no easy access to an escape. It’s a similar creepy feeling that Woodward gets as he’s talking to Deep Throat in the parking garage, when he sees a car pull away, and he gets the feeling that he’s being watched and also realizing he may have put himself in the same danger that many of WoodStein’s sources are put in with their apparent gag order. Pakula did a great job of capturing a growing sense of fear and danger as the movie progresses and they get deeper into their work.
And it’s cool how the movie treats the audience as if they are right there with WoodStein as they uncover more and more information, rather than giving an overarching view of the aftermath at the beginning of the film, like some historical movies might. It feels a bit more organic, the way the audience learns about the details as the reporters do, and the case begins as something small, with only subtle hints that the Watergate break-in might be something bigger than it appears to be. The tediousness might make the movie hard to watch for some, but it also puts the audience right there with so much information being thrown at them at once, even if they don’t quite get all of it. After all, they do know where all of this is going in the bigger picture.
And the ending of the film is fitting, as it doesn’t offer a big finale or anything, it just kind of stops, as Woodward and Bernstein are typing away. That’s kind of how journalism works too, the story never really ends. It just keeps going. Where are all of these people be five years from now? How about 10 years from now? How does the past point to the future? A reporter’s job is never done, and when the reporter’s job is done, they just hand off their notes to the next one to take their chair. Certainly today, there are still echoes of the events of 40 years ago throughout the government and the public sector. It doesn’t end.
Next up, #76. “Forrest Gump”