All the President’s Men: The Paradigm of Investigative Journalism

All the President’s Men (1976) documents the Watergate scandal and the lives of two young aspiring journalists searching for the underlying truth of the story. On June 17, 1972, the burglary at the offices of the Democratic National Committee opens the door for Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein to investigate a case that eventually unveils one of the biggest debacles in American politics. While the film does not act as a direct representation of the 1960s, director Alan J. Pakula offers a political message that portrays the corruption and dishonesty within the White House.

Specifically, the film criticizes President Richard Nixon and his administration in its mission to secretly defeat the Democrats in the 1972 presidential election through various illegal activities, including extortion, phone tapping, fraud, and destruction of evidence. Nominated for an Academy Award as Best Picture, All the President’s Men illustrates the adventure, paranoia, frustration, and distress that Woodward and Bernstein face while simultaneously condemning the Nixon administration and those politicians at the highest level of American government.

Coming out of a decade that experienced the Civil Rights Movement, the New Left, and the 1960s counter-culture, the conservative policies of President Nixon put the country in a new political framework that many Americans were not yet willing to accept. Released in 1976, All the President’s Men points to the flaws in American political leadership during Nixon’s first term in office.

Several scenes in particular demonstrate the film’s political stance against the Nixon administration and the American government during the early 1970s. In the opening scene of the film, President Nixon arrives at the Capital to address Congress and the people of the United States. The filmmakers present this scene as the audience’s first image in order to make a larger statement about the corruption of American politics with particular attention tied to deceitfulness and fraudulence of President Nixon. Before this scene moves into the opening credits, the audience is left with an initial feeling of disgust as President Nixon smiles and greets his fellow politicians.

Subsequently, the filmmakers move to five burglars from Miami entering the Watergate building and attempting to bug Democratic headquarters before they are caught in the act. The juxtaposition of these two opening scenes drives the rest of the plot as Woodward and Bernstein frantically chase down a string of sources that continuously lie, stating their negligence about the break-in or the Republicans’ “slush” fund. Other sources that the two reporters reach feel compelled to reveal the truth but do not have the conscience or courage to do so. Instead, “Deepthroat,” ex-second-in-charge at the FBI, becomes Woodward’s most reliable source on the matter-the source inside the administration.

Throughout the film, The Washington Post faces several difficult situations with regard to the accuracy of the information collected by Woodward and Bernstein. As Woodward and Bernstein begin to investigate the events and people in connection with the burglary, a competition ensues between The Washington Post and The New York Times to uncover the scandal first.

In his 1992 feature story “Journalism’s Finest 2 Hours and 16 Minutes,” staff writer Ken Ringle of The Washington Post discusses the danger of the Watergate story and the pressure-packed frenzy of newspaper journalism revealed in the film: “[The viewer] is swept from one point in the story to the next by the reportorial process of discovery, whose techniques are incomparably conveyed, and by the pressure the young reporters feel-first the pressures of competition, then the pressures of production, finally the pressures of fear and actual physical danger.”

With the nature of the story proving to be extremely dangerous, the reputation of The Washington Post and the entire American press quickly became at risk. As a result, executive editor Ben Bradlee does not initially believe the story or the reporting done by Woodward and Bernstein. Over time however, Bradlee slowly sees the story developing into a national crisis and begins to trust Woodward and Bernstein as respected political journalists. In this way, Bradlee, like Woodward and Bernstein, comes to realize that the American people deserve to know the truth about the corrupt, secretive nature and activities of the Nixon administration.

In other parts of the film, the filmmakers hint at their political agenda in showing the cut-throat nature of American politics. For instance, after Woodward’s editor notifies him of Charles Colson’s position in public office, he adds that Nixon’s top political aide has a cartoon that reads, “When you got ’em by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow.” The filmmakers had a specific reason to include this short bit, showing that the men who work for the President are callous and untruthful despite the power that they hold over the American public.

In the final scene, the television broadcasts President Nixon’s second inauguration, focusing the camera on him as he swears under oath. Ironically, the sound of typewriters pervades in the background as Woodward and Bernstein begin to expose the whole truth about the Watergate scandal. Thus, the film leaves its viewers with a general sense that the Nixon administration consisted largely of scheming and deceitful crooks-the American government could no longer be trusted as it once had been in the 1950s and early 1960s under Presidents Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, and John F. Kennedy.

Even with a strong political slant against the Nixon administration and the Republican party, All the President’s Men has been praised for its realistic depiction of investigative journalism in the middle of the nation’s political hotbed. Renowned film critic Roger Ebert explains, “It provides the most observant study of working journalists we’re ever likely to see in a feature film. And it succeeds brilliantly in suggesting the mixture of exhilaration, paranoia, self-doubt, and courage that permeated The Washington Post as its two young reporters went after a presidency.”

All the President’s Men
succeeds in presenting viewers with the true story on the Watergate scandal while also making politics exciting to watch. The audience begins to empathize with Woodward and Bernstein as they struggle to read further into the information and discover the real story behind the scandal.

Ringle further comments on the brilliance of the film and its ability to capture the true workings of the newspaper business: “But 20 years after Watergate, All the President’s Men remains the best film ever made about the craft of journalism and an eerily accurate evocation of the mood and psychology-if not the details-of that byzantine presidential deceit and its unmasking.”

Similarly, other journalists and reviewers consider the film to be an outstanding thriller that serves as the paradigm for all journalism movies. Vincent Canby of the New York Times comments that the film is “a spellbinding detective story about the work of the two Washington Post reporters who helped break the Watergate scandal, a breathless adventure that recalls the triumphs of Frank and Joe Hardy in that long-ago series of boys’ books, and a vivid footnote to some contemporary American history that still boggles the mind.”

Style Editor Matt Slovick of WashingtonPost.com agrees that “impartiality aside, no film blends the elements of journalism and Washington intrigue more compellingly than All the President’s Men, the story of two Washington Post reporters who helped take down the No. 1 resident on Pennsylvania Avenue, transforming both politics and journalism.”

Although some have mildly criticized the length and narrative structure of the film, the majority of the comments made by critics and reviewers have celebrated William Goldman’s screenplay and Pakula’s direction in exposing the tension of the Watergate scandal inside and outside of the newsroom.

All the President’s Men accurately and brilliantly depicts the detective work of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in their attempt to uncover the truth about the Watergate burglary. While the motion picture clearly illustrates its political position from beginning to end, Goldman and Pakula’s production comments on the disgruntled and chaotic mood surfacing from the American press and public during the early 1970s. As these feelings begin to resonate more with the audience, the film reveals that the years of Richard Nixon’s presidency greatly moved away from the culture, politics, and spirit of the 1960s.

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