Fresh Eyes: All The President's Men (1976)
Newspaper dramas occupy a strange position in the pantheon of storytelling. If a story was important and worthwhile enough to make a film out of, odds are that everyone watching would know how the film is going to resolve itself. In my mind, knowing the resolution of a storyline saps all the tension away, I thought it was obvious what I was getting into, but as All The President’s Men says early on, “I’m not interested in what you think is obvious, I’m interested in what you know.”
This quote ends up being the mission statement of the film. All the President’s Men chronicles the work done by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein while investigating the Watergate break-in and associated conspiracy. Since the film focuses entirely on journalism, everything hinges on what Woodward (Robert Redford) and Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) definitively know and the sources they can cite. Their editors are constantly worried about the consequences of any single piece of information being wrong or poorly sourced. The catch on the necessity of this information is it is incredibly hard to come by. The majority of the film is made up of Woodward and Bernstein making phone calls, combing through old papers and financial records, just trying to make fragments of a story fit together cohesively.
All the President’s Men stresses the difficulty of working as a journalist not only in the events of the film, but also in every technical aspect of the film. Multiple shots in the film frame Woodward and Bernstein as small, unimportant parts of the world, doing small work that would be overlooked otherwise. Two shots in particular come to mind in this regard. The first is when the two are in the Library of Congress, combing through receipts and records of who checked out what and when they did it. The camera pulls back to the ceiling, showing Woodward and Bernstein as just two small parts of the world, in danger of being lost amongst the crowd and their work along with it. However, the sound of the cardstock flipping against itself and papers being sorted drowns out any ambient noise coming from the world around them. This serves to underscore the importance of not only journalistic integrity and work ethic, but also reminds the audience that the actions of these two small, unassuming reporters will echo throughout the city of Washington and the United States itself for years to come.
The second shot I think of is one that frames a TV showing Nixon’s nomination as the Republican candidate on the left 75% of the frame and very close up in the foreground, but Woodward is still visible in the background on the right-hand side of the frame, typing away on the story. The juxtaposition of the pageantry of the RNC with Woodward at his desk working further stresses the smallness of what journalists actually do. Journalists do not do what they do for glory, for attention, for power, like politicians do. They give up their nights, they miss out on celebrations, they forfeit their free time as news can strike at any moment. Even still, Woodward plugs away, the sound of his typewriter ringing out just as loud as the celebrations screaming out from the television set. When compared to the pomp and circumstance of politicians, Woodward and Bernstein are willing to let their words and research speak for themselves. They are interested in only what they know and can prove.
In this day and age, it’s hard to watch All the President’s Men and not think about the recently used terms “fake news” and “alternative facts.” Certain people on the internet are quick to judge any news they disagree with as partisan or “bias,” and question the political leanings and loyalties of the people writing said news. All the President’s Men, by the very nature of the topic being covered, shows how much work goes into news of this nature and the lengths reporters will go to to correctly source and confirm information before sending it to print. As someone who does a fair amount of research for his own academics and writing, I can attest to the importance of this work. Your reputation as a writer is at stake, something which is stressed often throughout the film. Except here, it is the reputation of an entire publication on the line, not just one or two people’s careers. Journalism is important, and in the case of All the President’s Men, the only thing riding on good journalism and journalistic integrity is “the First Amendment to the Constitution, free press, and the future of the United States of America.” In today’s newsscape, that message is more important than ever. If I had to take away one thing from this viewing of All the President’s Men, it’s the fact that good journalism, regardless of politics and affiliation, deserves our respect. So please, give it just that.