Movies That Everyone Should See: “All the President’s Men”

When I first watched this film, I had no idea about any of the details of Watergate whatsoever. I mean, I was a burnout in high school, I barely paid attention. I knew the broad strokes, and that was it. Richard Nixon was impeached for spying on and sabotaging his political rivals and it all came to light because a handful of burglars got caught breaking in to National Democratic Headquarters, which were located in an apartment complex known as “Watergate”. The story was revealed due to a couple of reporters at the Washington Post, Woodward and Bernstein. That’s it, that’s all I knew. I didn’t even know Woodward and Bernstein’s first names. Just the bare minimum (I mean, I think ANY American should know that much, no?).

Now, of course, I know more than your average person. Eventually my love for this movie would lead me to read the book, and I’m a sucker nowadays for anything related to Watergate on PBS or the History Channel or wherever. Which is a nice compliment to the flick in and of itself, right? That my love for the movie led me to explore its subject more deeply, yada yada. But that’s not where I’m going with this.

What I’m saying is, I fell in love with this movie without having any idea what the %#$& was going on.

Those of you who’ve seen the movie know what I’m talking about. This isn’t an easy movie to follow completely, by any stretch of the imagination. It was released almost immediately after Watergate (within two years of Nixon’s impeachment), so the movie-going public at that time was still intimately familiar with all the players. For the theatre audience (and during this movie’s time, that’s all that movies were made for), these people who were being discussed were freshly coming off of being the elected officials who ruled the White House, and then a three-year stint as stars of the trial of the century (pre OJ). They didn’t need to be told who Bob Haldeman was. They knew.

As a result, you get a movie that takes a lot for granted. Including the intelligence of the viewer. It moves at a rapid fire pace, and the investigation often leaps from step to step with only the smallest bit of explanation of how they got from A to B. Names are bandied about at a breakneck pace. Dozens of them.

LOL. I know. At this point in this post it sounds like I’m NOT recommending this movie.

Here’s the thing though. It doesn’t matter that you don’t know who Bob Haldeman was, you’ll figure out enough of what’s going on via context, and then the rest of the movie will work its magic on you. By the time the credits roll you’ll be saying, that was so awesome, even though you still couldn’t tell me what John Ehrlichman’s title was at the White House. I’ve explained the level of complexity in the story as way of illustrating all the challenges this movie overcomes. What winds up happening isn’t that the complexity overwhelms the viewer - the viewer picks up on the necessary elements and enjoys the movie, while the Watergate-knowledgeable viewer winds up having a film full of details and minutiae to cherish.

How do they do it? By focusing on the excitement of it. The adventure. All the President’s Men is a thriller, people!! This is the greatest detective story of all time. Woodward and Bernstein were on a quest for the truth, and the truth was being protected by the most powerful people on the planet, with the full force of the government behind them!

Woodward and Bernstein slowly come together as a team, and then slowly come to realize exactly what they’re dealing with. Their suspicion grows. Evidence mounts.

But as the story builds, so does the pressure. The stakes. Other newspapers are racing them to find the truth and to break the story first. People are trying to discredit them. At one point, their editor, Ben Bradlee (portrayed by Jason Robards, who won an Academy Award for this role) tell them, “We’re under a lot of pressure, you know, and you put us there. Nothing’s riding on this except the, uh, first amendment to the Constitution, freedom of the press, and maybe the future of the country. Not that any of that matters, but if you guys fuck up again, I’m going to get mad. Goodnight.”

He wasn’t exaggerating, either.

Had the Nixon Whitehouse succeeded in blocking their investigation and remained in power, who knows what the consequences would have been for the press. It certainly wouldn’t have boded well for the Washington Post, as Nixon most assuredly would have done everything in his power to bring them down.

Nowhere in this movie are the stakes more clearly portrayed than with Bob Woodward’s contact, “Deep Throat”. In recent years, “Deep Throat” has been revealed to have been FBI Associate Director Mark Felt. But at the time, he refused to go on the record, insisting on meeting in dark parking garages in the middle of the night, always wondering if Woodward had been followed. As portrayed by Hal Holbrook, he was paranoid, secretive, cautious. His trepidations infect the entire film. You got the feeling that not only were the investigators on to something BIG, they were on to something DANGEROUS.

The duo of Woodward and Berstein are undeterred, however, and they chip away dilligently at the walls that the President’s men have put up around him. Slowly the story comes together. They make cold calls, they track down checks, they go door to door. They catch a lucky break here and a lucky break there. At other times they push the boundaries of decency in order to get at the story, incuding asking women to see people for information, and barging their way into offices and homes.

But it pays off. Eventually, the reluctance of the of witnesses break down and people begin to tell what they know. Of particular note is a scene where Berstein gets a bookkeeper for the committee to re-elect the President to tell him what she knows. Jane Alexander was nominated for an academy award for her nervous, reluctant portrayal of a woman afraid to tell the truth.

Eventually, even “Deep Throat” cracks. 

“Get out your notebook, there’s more”

This was an incredible chapter in our countries history. Two common reporters exposed a corruption of power within the most insulated government sanctuary in existence. They pressed on towards the truth in spite of threats to their reputations, their jobs, and eventually, their lives.

Due to their efforts, the 37th President of the United States of America, Richard Milhous Nixon, resigned the Presidency.

This movie captures all of the details, the drama, and the excitement perfectly. It features an incredible cast at the height of their powers. It was nominated for eight Academy Awards (including Best Picture and Best Director), and won four. It clocks in at number 77 on AFI’s 100 Years, 100 Movies… 10th Anniversary Edition. It’s a great story, delivered in a great movie.

It’s definitely a “Movie That Everyone Should See”.

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15 thoughts on “Movies That Everyone Should See: “All the President’s Men”

  1. It’s on my “need to see” list, but I wanted to comment that if it portrays this as a very dangerous thing, it’s absolutely right to do so. Nixon was hardly the first President who would have warranted impeachment; the nation had had several incompetent Presidents before (not that Nixon was incompetent), and at least a handful who were as corrupt and evil as Nixon. Only one President had ever been impeached at that point (Andrew Johnson), and even he was acquitted. They all got off scot-free legally, even in extreme cases like Andrew Jackson, where he was openly defying the entirety of the other branches of government. By going after the President, Deep Throat and everyone else were literally attempting something that had, up until then, proven impossible.

    • I think the movie eventually REVEALS what a dangerous thing they’re doing.

      When they first begin, the crime doesn’t make any sense to them. Why would these CIA guys break in to the Democratic headquarters? Then they connect it to the Committee to Re-elect, and they know they’re on to something big, but they don’t know how high it goes. Eventually, they “See the Shark swim under the boat” so to speak and they realize whats going on. That’s when they’re told their lives are in danger.

      It’s an awesome movie, man. If you haven’t seen it? Bump it up on your list and check it out. You wont regret it. It’s in my personal top twenty.

  2. Great book. Great movie. Great reccomendation. Its hard to believe that characters this brave…this ambititous and this driven by the truth are, in fact real people and that their story is a true one. Especially these days when journalism in most of it’s forms is just a conglomeration of the excrement of “the powers that be”. Talking heads just spouting (or writing or blogging) the party line bullshit of the asshole that signs his check….or the asshole that signs the assholes check…no better than your garden variety whore….I wish there were modern characters like them. And a public that would support and appreciate that kind of work.

  3. I think it’s a great movie for ANY decade. The political intrigue; the secrecy; the snappy repartee between Hoffman’s and Redford’s characters – fun stuff. One of Redford’s better roles in my opinion.

    “Listen… I’m tired of your chickenshit games! I don’t want hints… I need to know what you know. ” – Bob Woodward (talking to Deep Throat)

    • There’s only one appropriate response to that comment S.

      “The Watergate burglary… it was a Haldeman operation. The whole business was run by Haldeman, the money… everything. It won’t be easy getting at him. He was insulated somehow, you’ll have to find out how. Mitchell started doing covert stuff before anyone else. The list of the people involved is longer than anyone can imagine. It involves the entire U.S. Intelligence Community. FBI… CIA… Justice… it’s incredible. The cover-up had little to do with the Watergate foul-up. It was mainly to protect the covert operations. It leads everywhere. Get out your notebook. There’s more. I think your lives are in danger…”

      One of the best moments in movie history. Deep Throat finally spills what he knows. AWESOME. :D

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