1976’s telling of The Washington Post reporting by Woodward and Bernstein that led to Richard Nixon’s resignation, All the President’s Men makes the AFI list at #77.
Robert Redford plays the ambitious young Bob Woodward, a reporter with only 9 months of experience with The Washington Post who gets assigned to a boring story about a burglary at the Watergate hotel that turns out to be the very coordinated raiding of the Democratic National Committee files as part of a larger set of activities funded from an illegal slush fund for opposition research.
Dustin Hoffman plays the cranky, older, chain-smoking Carl Bernstein, who assists Woodward on his quixotic quest to get the bottom of the robbery and its origins.
The complexity and twists and turns of the story are far too much to cover in a short review but the basics are that they quickly discovered a connection between the robbery and E. Howard Hunt, a former CIA operative who worked in the White House which eventually leads them to H.R. Haldeman, the White House Chief of Staff. The movie essentially covers the reporting from the Watergate break-in in June of 1972 up until Nixon’s re-inauguration in January of 1973. And of course, Deep Throat, Woodward’s deep background source that we now know was FBI agent Mark Felt, but at the time of the making of the movie was unknown, helping to steer Woodward to the truth through a series of parking garage conversations.
There are several interesting aspects to the film. It is sort of a whodunit crime story told through the lens of reporters. Woodward and Bernstein use both classic reporting techniques – such as knocking on the doors of every person who works for the Committee to Re-Elect (Nixon’s campaign committee) to gray area things like using a former girlfriend of a campaign worker to obtain the list in the first place. They use a variety of techniques to illicit information from witnesses, such as pretending they already know answers and are just looking for confirmation to allowing witnesses to just give them initials when they aren’t comfortable giving names.
The depth, sophistication and reach of Nixon’s opposition research operation which often appeared to engage in illegal acts was a central point of the film – this wasn’t merely about the cover-up of one unauthorized break-in, it was about a pattern of activity. Also interesting is how Woodward (a rookie) and Bernstein (a lightly regarded veteran) got to keep the story – basically they were able to keep working on the story because nobody thought there was much too it.
The two hours and nineteen minutes of this film race by and leave you wanting more. But the film is not without its flaws – it ends rather abruptly with a series of news headlines describing the lead up to Nixon resigning – basically condensing the last 18 months of the story into about 30 seconds. The film also offers no real examination about the media – it is based on a book by Woodward and Bernstein and portrays both them and Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee as pure noble pursuers of the truth whereas a more nuanced view of the messy world of reporting would have been interesting. There is also surprisingly little revealed about who Woodward and Bernstein are – for instance. in real life Carl Bernstein was going through a divorce during the exact timeframe of the film but nothing is even discussed in the movie.
Still, on balance, this is a gripping, if at times exhausting to follow story and viewed in the context of its release (a mere 2 years after Nixon’s resignation), it is a very important contemporary perspective on one of the most substantive events in American political history. In short, this is a great film with only minor flaws.
Production Quality 9/10
Rewatch Value 9/10
Total Score 35/40