Thursday Review writers discuss the classics, movies which should be essential viewing for anyone who loves great films of social and cultural relevance.

Image courtesy of Warner Brothers, 1976

The Best Newspaper Movie Ever Made?

By R. Alan Clanton
Thursday Review Editor

All The President's Men; Director, Alan J. Pakula.  One of the contemporaneous complaints about this movie was its timing: shot and edited as it was between 1975 and early 1976, and released in 1976, its telling of the Watergate story seemed--to some critics and political watchers--a bit too soon. Indeed, the dramatic and all-consuming events surrounding the downfall of President Nixon were still toxic and divisive to many Americans.  But there was a method to this production madness.  By seizing the story quickly, while the coals and ashes were still glowing, producer Robert Redford and director Pakula ensnared the collective memory and individual thought processes of the principals involved, and managed to produce an historical retelling with great accuracy without the typical injection of "composite" characters and glossed-over discrepancies. The movie has often been referred to as variously the greatest newspaper film ever made, as well as one of the greatest true detective stories ever produced.

Based on the best-selling book All The President's Men, by Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, and using the Oscar-winning script developed by screenwriter William Goldman, the film follows the story as seen through the eyes of the two young journalists. Previously languishing with second-rate, sometimes third-tier stories, the two reporters--hungry for something of importance--stumble into the great political scandal of the 20th Century almost by accident.  Over an otherwise quiet weekend, Woodward is assigned to cover a bizarre burglary at the Democratic headquarters, which was at the time located in a suite of offices in the tony Watergate Complex near the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.  The perpetrators--a group of Cuban-American men dressed in high-quality three-piece suits--have been caught with high tech electronic surveillance devices, walkie-talkies, sequential hundred dollar bills, and an address book which includes names and phone numbers of mid-level operatives at the White House.  Almost immediately Woodward realizes he is on to something big, though he cannot clearly see the end game.  Soon Bernstein is assigned to work with Woodward, and the duo begins their serpentine investigation.

It can be safely argued that no other motion picture has ever captured the realities of the 20th Century newspaper business with the same accuracy and fidelity as All The President's Men.  From the meticulous recreation of the vast newsroom set, to the details found in the offices of the Post's editors, to the arcane tribal and cultural processes found in the rapport between reporters and their editors, to the complex dynamic found between rival departments and competing editors, the film--perhaps even more than the book--serves as a nearly self-contained lesson in Print Journalism 101.  Further, more than any other emotion, filmgoers experience the gumshoe frustrations of reporters as they work long hours and face withering deadline pressures.

Woodward (played by Robert Redford) and Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) find that they must scratch and scrabble for every shred of information, even the tiniest of leads, pushing at all times against the external pressure of an obtuse, stonewalling White House and a largely non-cooperative world of officialdom, such as normally talkative FBI agents who themselves have turned to stony silence.  But the pair of reporters must also struggle against intense newsroom challenges, not the least of which is rising to the standards set by the craggy, dubious, ever-watchful figure of Ben Bradlee, legendary Washington Post editor, played with first-rate aplomb by Jason Robards.  Even more remarkable is Hal Holbrook's icy but nuanced performance as the shadowy "Deep Throat," the once jealously-guarded and highly-placed source of some of Woodward's most explosive leads and clues as the Watergate story slowly unfolded.*  The scenes filmed in barely lit parking garages--Deep Throat's choice for his late night talks with Woodward--intensify the notion of dark forces seemingly aligned against the work of the reporters.

Indeed, one of the film's most effective cinematic devices is cinematographer Gordon Willis's careful interplay of light and dark, a visual tool to help channel the growing tension as the two reporters struggle ceaselessly day and night to get at the truth.  Though in the early sequences the scenes external to the newsroom seem bright and sunlit, as the detective story progresses and the scope of the Watergate conspiracy slowly, inexorably widens, the outside world of Washington (and its sprawling suburbs) grows ever darker by degrees, leaving the Post newsroom a sort of safe-haven of light--an island of artificial and institutional illumination smack in the middle of a city of paranoia and shadowy fear.  There is also a sometimes atmospheric fog of loneliness to the task the reporters face as an ever-more widening distance opens around them on sidewalks and in federal buildings.  The familial message of the newsroom reinforces this, as the Post's various editors huddle closely to debate the merits or risks of each new step in the advance of the complex story.  Bradley (Robards) acts as deux ex machina, scrupulously mediating debates and discussions, demanding that exact standards be met, and often issuing tough challenges to the reporters to work even harder.  Robards, to his credit, very nearly steals some scenes in his powerful role as protector of the Post's reputation and credibility.

Historically telling is the long scene shot entirely in a small conference room as the paper's top editors convene a routine editorial meeting to decide the layout and priorities for the next edition, a scene which portrays with accuracy--and barely concealed tension--the growing concern among editors and management that the Watergate story may implode, taking the venerable newspaper down with it.  Without overstating, the film reveals Bradlee's guarded but tenacious willingness to stick with the instincts and street-smarts of his two reporters.  But at the end of the meeting one editor--who had dissented with the simple warning "Ben, it's a dangerous story for this paper"--is asked to stay and clarify his meaning.  With the conference room door closed, the foreign affairs editor tells Bradley and Howard Simons (played by Martin Balsam) that the Watergate story has too many loopholes and gaps, and points out that very few other American newspapers are following the story.  Further, he asks the simple rhetorical question: why would the Republicans do it?--the break-in, the cover-up--since the Nixon people seem to have everything to lose and nothing to gain from such a fiasco.

As in most great movies, chemistry counts.  Redford and Hoffman become immediately convincing in the respective roles.  It helps that Hoffman bears a resemblance to reporter Bernstein, and we so quickly identify with Redford's portrayal that we suspend concern that he bears no resemblance to Woodward.  The dynamic between the two leads is immediately believable, as are the interactions with the other editors (Jack Warden plays a key role as the Post metro editor Harry Rosenfeld, immediate supervisor to Woodward and Bernstein).  The role of Carl Bernstein remains an unusual one for Hoffman, an actor widely known--then, and later--as a highly diverse character actor (Midnight Cowboy; Rain Man; Tootsie; Hook; etc), but Hoffman so completely becomes reporter Bernstein that even decades later we forget that this was a "straight" role, not one demanding comic relief or quirkiness.  Still, to capture the high-energy of Bernstein, director Pakula encouraged Hoffman to incorporate a kind of antic nervousness to the part--chain-smoking, fast-talking, quick-thinking--a character in sharp contrast to the more deliberate, cautious Woodward.

One of the most remarkable aspects of the film is the newsroom itself.  Since shooting at the actual Washington Post was impossible, Pakula and his set designers recreated the entire newsroom on two adjacent sound stages at Warner Brothers in Burbank--stages whose shared walls were removed.  Into this vast space drop-ceilings were hung, glass walls constructed and fluorescent lighting installed.  Every detail was carefully copied and recreated, from the style and manufacturers of furniture, to carpets, to posters on walls, file cabinets, legal pads, phone books and even samples of actual newsroom trash from wastebaskets back in D.C.  Goldman and Pakula's intention was to create a set so authentic that other reporters watching the film would be unable to discern the difference between the Post newsroom and the full-scale replica in California.

Goldman also feared the negative reactions of reporters and columnists if the movie devolved into the usual package of Hollywood newspaper clichés, so Redford, Goldman, Pakula and others incorporated into the film every element of newspaper authenticity that was possible, working with Woodward and Bernstein and other reporters and editors at every step.  Conversely, Pakula and Willis had to make sure the film's realistic portrayal of reporters' long hours and thankless drudgery did not cause moviegoers to balk or fall asleep.  So Pakula employed a meticulous pacing which--though deliberate--keeps the audience riveted to the taut detective story.

This attention to detail and sensitive pacing paid off: All The President's Men received uniformly good reviews from members of the press, and it succeeded with traditional movie critics as well.  Jason Robards won for best supporting actor; Goldman for best screenplay.

But the great Watergate movie may have still suffered from issues of timing; the film had to face tough, head-to-head competition at the Oscars in early 1977 from an equally powerful media movie, Network, an outrageous and satirical look at a television news business gone mad--literally--over an obsession with ratings. (See Retro Review, Network, to be posted June 10)  The two movies faced off in an ironic confluence--one, a painstakingly accurate retelling of two print reporters caught in the middle of the greatest political conspiracy of the 20th Century; the other, a biting, audacious and electrifying repudiation of TV news in general, complete with otherwise technically accurate portrayals of the processes of television production. Academy members predisposed to the resonance of journalism at the height of post-Watergate power--the newspaper business at its apogee and TV news at its moment of fastest ascendancy--were split, as it were.

Had they not faced each other directly, either film might have deservedly swept the Oscars.  Instead, best picture and best director that year went to Rocky.


*Deep Throat, we would learn decades later, was in fact Mark Felt, a former top agent and lead investigator at the FBI, and one of J. Edgar Hoover's hand-picked protégé.  At the time of the Watergate investigations, Felt was the third highest ranking agent within the FBI.