How ‘All the President’s Men’ went from buddy flick to masterpiece
17:07 JST, June 10, 2022
Bob Woodward peruses a well-thumbed manuscript, its blue paper cover threatening to tear away from the metal clasps precariously holding it together. Dated Sept. 25, 1974, the document is the second draft of William Goldman’s Oscar-winning screenplay for “All the President’s Men,” an adaptation of Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s book about their Washington Post investigation of Watergate. The burglary story that Woodward and Bernstein began to report during the summer of 1972 would, over the next two years, uncover widespread malfeasance and criminality within the Republican Party, send high-level White House aides to prison, prompt congressional investigations and impeachment proceedings and lead to the resignation of President Richard Nixon.
Sitting at a table in the sunroom of his Georgetown home, Woodward glances through Goldman’s 161-page script, recalling when “All the President’s Men’s” producer and star Robert Redford sent it to him for his input. With ballpoint pen in hand, Woodward had pored over the screenplay, scrawling “No!” or “Wrong” in the margins every few pages, usually where Goldman had inserted a made-up scenario or “His Girl Friday”-type banter for his and Bernstein’s characters to deliver.
“Goldman’s a jokester,” Woodward explains in his measured Midwestern cadence, referring to the motion pictures Goldman had already written for Redford, “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” and “The Great Waldo Pepper.” Alan J. Pakula, who directed “All the President’s Men,” would derisively dub Goldman’s original conception of the movie “Butch Woodward and the Sundance Bernstein” – a rakish picaresque featuring two intrepid reporters “loving and laughing their way through the East as they bring down the president of the United States.” The fact that the heroes would be played by Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, two of the era’s biggest movie stars, threatened to reduce the entire enterprise to little more than a slick, self-impressed buddy flick.
No movie springs perfectly formed from page to screen. But to read Woodward’s marked-up draft of Goldman’s screenplay is to realize that the “All the President’s Men” we know – the lean, flawlessly calibrated thriller that made millions at the box office when it came out in 1976, earned four Oscars and turned Woodward and Bernstein into legends; the movie that’s worshiped by reporters, political junkies and filmmakers alike; the movie that from the moment it opened seemed to fuse seamlessly with private memory and collective myth – that movie came perilously close to being forgettable, along, quite possibly, with Watergate itself.
The journey of “All the President’s Men” from mediocrity to triumph tells an alternately sobering and inspiring truth about movies: The great ones are a function of the countless mistakes that didn’t get made – the myriad bad calls, lapses in taste and bouts of bad luck that encase every production like a block of heavy, unyielding stone.
This is the story of how Redford and Pakula, and the cast and crew they assembled, bullied Goldman’s flawed but structurally brilliant script into art. It’s the story of a perfect movie and imperfect history, a cautionary tale whose lessons – about impunity, abuse of power and intimidation of the press – have taken on new urgency nearly 50 years after its release. It’s the story of how what was intended as a small-bore black-and-white character study featuring unknown actors became one of the finest films of the 20th century, one that marked the end of a cinematic era, changed journalism forever and – for better or worse – became the fractal through which we’ve come to understand the dizzyingly complicated saga known as Watergate.
Robert Redford wanted to make “All the President’s Men,” he writes in an email, because “I believed that there was a story to tell that sat underneath the bigger story of the Watergate break-in.” He has spoken often about the origin of the idea, which struck him while he was on a publicity tour for the film “The Candidate” in July 1972. The studio had arranged a faux whistle-stop tour on a train from Jacksonville, Fla., to Miami, near where George McGovern would soon be nominated at the Democratic National Convention.
“I was going to the back of the train and standing there, seeing if I could draw a bigger crowd than [Edmund] Muskie or [John] Lindsay or McGovern, which I did, by about 2,000 or 3,000,” Redford told me in 2005. “I’d say, ‘Gosh, it’s great you’re all here, apparently there are 3,000 or 4,000 here today, and there were about 1,500 [people] for Muskie and 500 for Scoop Jackson.’ And then they’d all cheer and scream and yell. And I’d say, ‘So I’ll tell you one thing. I just want to remind you of something. I have absolutely nothing to say,’ and the train would pull out. It was pretty funny. Up to a point.”
Between stops, Redford chatted with the entertainment and political reporters who were following him. Everyone was gossiping about a break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate complex in Washington, which had occurred two weeks earlier. “I said, ‘What happened with that? Was it the Cuban guys?’ ” Redford recalled, referring to four of the alleged criminals, who were Cuban American. The sidelong glances and cryptic smiles suggested to Redford that the reporters knew more than they were telling. “There was some vibe going between them.”
As they continued to talk, Redford grew more frustrated by the journalists’ cynicism about what looked like a potentially explosive story, the prevailing sentiment being “We’ll never know.”
“I said, ‘Wait a minute, hold on,” Redford recalled. “You guys are here watching me make a fool out of myself [over] something trivial, [but] is there more to this?’ And they really let me have it. They said, ‘There are three things you don’t understand: You don’t understand about publishing a newspaper. In order to publish something like that you have to have the support of the publisher [and] the editor. And you have to have time. And [with] newspapers, you don’t have that time. Secondly, it’s not going to come out. Because McGovern’s going to self-destruct, Nixon’s going to win in a landslide, and nobody wants to be on the wrong side of this guy, because he’s vindictive and mean and he’ll go after newspapers.’ And I said, ‘Well, how chickens— is that?’ “
After the junket, Redford went home to Utah, where he was preparing to film “The Way We Were,” reading everything he could about the break-in. “And then, when [Woodward and Bernstein’s] articles started to appear, I was right on them.”
On Saturday, June 17, 1972, Woodward had been summoned to the newsroom by city editor Barry Sussman, who assigned him to cover the arraignment of the five burglars who had been arrested at the Watergate office building hours earlier. In the courtroom, Woodward heard one of the accused men give his name as James McCord and his profession as a retired CIA agent. That day, from his position on the Virginia desk, Bernstein began delving into the identities of McCord’s cohorts, who were from Miami and described their professions as “anti-Communists.”
The Watergate story would be picked up by other outlets, among them Time magazine, the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times. In coming months, reporters such as Walter Rugaber, Seymour Hersh and Jack Nelson would advance the story in critical ways, sometimes scooping The Post in the process. But Redford was intrigued by Woodward and Bernstein and their reporting in the story’s earliest stages. His interest only grew when they made a major error in October 1972, writing that Hugh Sloan, treasurer of the Committee to Re-Elect the President (CREEP), had testified before a grand jury that Nixon chief of staff Bob Haldeman had controlled the fund that paid for the Watergate break-in and other dirty tricks. (Sloan had confirmed Haldeman’s involvement to the reporters but had not told the grand jury.)
It was around that time that Redford read a profile of Woodward and Bernstein, and the idea of a movie took root. “I thought that was a real great character study,” Redford recalled, referring to the WASP, Republican, Yale graduate Woodward and the Jewish, liberal, long-haired Bernstein. “Two guys that couldn’t be more different. Different religions, different politics, different everything. And yet they had to work together, and they didn’t like each other very much. I said, ‘Boy, that feels like a good, interesting little black-and-white film to me.'”
Redford began to reach out. “They didn’t return my calls.”
Bernstein vividly remembers the day that Woodward let him know Redford had been trying to get in touch. He even recalls wadding up a piece of paper and throwing it in the trash in dismay. “I said, ‘Jesus, don’t talk to him!’ ” Bernstein says. “I can remember Woodward coming over to my desk, and I looked at him like he was crazy. I said, ‘No, we cannot talk to him! Suppose the [Republican National Committee] found out we were talking to Hollywood?’ “
Redford kept trying, reaching out to Woodward every few months. In the spring of 1973, when McCord wrote a letter to Judge John J. Sirica admitting that he had lied under oath about Nixon’s involvement in Watergate, the actor’s passion for the project was reignited. He was in Chicago filming “The Sting” when he called Woodward. “I said, ‘Look, just give me a half an hour, would you, please?’ And he said OK.”
Redford flew to Washington, where Woodward admitted that he had suspected the entire game of phone tag had been a hoax; he also informed the actor that he and Bernstein couldn’t possibly consider a movie because they were under contract to write a book. “I was squirrelly about this,” Woodward admits today. “The questions I had [were]: Is this going to be a good thing for journalism, for The Washington Post, for reporters like Carl and myself?”
Redford later recalled inviting Woodward and Bernstein to meet with him at his New York apartment on Fifth Avenue; Goldman, who had become a friend, was there as well. When the journalists left, Redford said, “There’s the movie. These guys. Their personalities. The aspects of each that propel the other.”
In April 1974, a few months before “All the President’s Men” was published, Redford agreed to buy the film rights for $450,000 – an exorbitant sum at the time. (He had already influenced the book by mentioning to the authors that they should make themselves the protagonists of their investigation, rather than centering on the criminals.) By now, Bernstein had softened on the idea of a movie. “We worried about going Hollywood,” he says with a laugh. “But deep down we knew we were ultimately going to say yes.”
Convincing The Post’s leadership, he says, was “another hill to climb.” Although executive editor Ben Bradlee was open to the idea of a film, publisher Katharine Graham was apprehensive. “In many ways, the idea of a movie scared me witless,” Graham wrote in her 1997 memoir, “Personal History.” Despite Redford’s promise to treat the story seriously, she recalled in her book, “I was naturally nervous about having the image and reputation of The Post in the hands of a movie company, whose interests did not necessarily coincide with ours.”
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By late July that year, Goldman had written the first of several drafts of the screenplay. During a meeting with Woodward, Goldman had asked him to list “the crucial events – not the most dramatic but the essentials – that enabled the story eventually to be told,” Goldman recalls in his memoir “Adventures in the Screen Trade.” When Woodward named them – the break-in, the arraignment, his combative collaboration with Bernstein, his late-night meetings with confidential source Deep Throat in an Arlington, Va., parking garage, his and Bernstein’s interviews with such key figures as Sloan, and their work together on an article about a $25,000 check written to CREEP Midwest finance chairman Kenneth Dahlberg – Goldman writes, “I looked at what I’d written and saw that I’d included every one.”
Indeed, Goldman’s earliest drafts of “All the President’s Men” included most of the key beats that defined the early stages of the Watergate investigation. (The iconic line “Follow the money” wouldn’t appear until a few drafts in; signature sequences involving White House deputy communications director Ken Clawson and attorney Donald Segretti were added later.) But it also included rafts of extraneous material, including several scenes between Woodward and his girlfriend and Bernstein and his ex-wife, as well as women inevitably described as “leggy,” “delicious looking” and having had “the best boobs in Virginia.” In one version, Woodward engages in a long, lingering kiss with his “sweet, pretty” ex-wife in the Post newsroom; another features a scene during which Bernstein’s bike is stolen, ending with him shouting, “Nazi bastards!” at the thieves on a Washington sidewalk. When it came to the Watergate investigation, Goldman’s procedural hewed closely to Woodward and Bernstein’s original prose. But the corniest newsroom patter and personal scenes owed more to Hollywood fantasy than the repetitive routine and gnawing anxieties of daily news reporting.
Warner Bros. agreed to make “All the President’s Men,” on the condition that Redford would star in it. But Bernstein was “absolutely horrified” when he read what Goldman had written. “How could this have happened?” he recalls thinking. “The first thing we said to Redford was this has to be accurate. … [And] this is shtick.” He took Woodward aside in the Post newsroom and said, “You know, if Bradlee or Katharine gets a look at this, this project is done,” Bernstein recalls. “They can never see this.”
Knowing that Bernstein was dating Nora Ephron, whose parents were screenwriters, Woodward suggested that the couple take a stab at writing a screenplay themselves. Although he no longer possesses a copy of that effort, Bernstein recalls that “we made it consistent with the facts of our coverage, and we took out the shtick.” And, he freely admits, they punched up his character. “We might have cleaned me up a little more than we cleaned up Woodward,” he says with a grin. (“Carl, Errol Flynn is dead,” Redford reportedly told him after he read the Bernstein-Ephron draft.) Years later, Woodward strikes a more diplomatic – and romantic – tone. “My reaction was, ‘Nora really does love Carl,’ ” he says with a smile. “This is a love note!”
The Bernstein-Ephron effort was never intended to be an official script; they and Woodward wanted to provide suggestions for Goldman’s rewrites. When Redford, Goldman, Woodward and Bernstein met at Redford’s apartment and Redford asked Goldman to read Bernstein and Ephron’s draft for possible ideas, the screenwriter “turned around and walked out the door,” Bernstein recalls. “He never sat down.” Several years later, Goldman was still bitter, calling the episode “a gutless betrayal,” adding that he wouldn’t change anything in his career except this: “I wouldn’t have come near ‘All the President’s Men.’ “
No one was happy with Goldman’s script. But for all the mannered dialogue and crude characterizations in his earliest drafts, the screenwriter did several things right with “All the President’s Men” from the very beginning. For one thing, he understood the tempo and tone of a film that, in an introductory note, he described as “written to go like a streak.” Noting the black-and-white look and feel that Redford had in mind, Goldman wrote that “none of that matters if the movie is done without an enormous and constantly accelerating sense of pace.”
Perhaps most consequentially, he figured out where to begin and end a narrative that was still unfolding in real time: Nixon resigned on Aug. 8, 1974, just as Goldman was working on one of at least three “first” drafts. By the time the movie came out, the audience would already know the ending to a story that was far from finished when Woodward and Bernstein had written their book. Although Goldman first wanted to begin the movie with one of the burglars’ failed break-in attempts, he always concluded with Woodward and Bernstein going back to work after making the Haldeman mistake. (The literal ending – a shot of the reporters typing while Nixon’s second inauguration plays on a newsroom television, which then dissolves into a series of teletyped datelines announcing the Watergate convictions and Nixon’s resignation – was one alternative among many that were debated during the editing process.)
“What Bill Goldman deserved the Oscar for was figuring out where the damn movie should end,” says Jon Boorstin, who worked on “All the President’s Men” as Pakula’s assistant and became an associate producer. “Because the story didn’t end till years later, and it had nothing to do with [Woodward and Bernstein]. How do you create an arc with a sense of victory but also remain true to things as they happened?”
Woodward and Bernstein did not have script approval on “All the President’s Men,” but Redford sent them drafts to make sure they were accurate. “Redford was at heart a reporter,” Woodward says. “His motive was really just to stick to the facts. And tell the story ‘unpolluted,’ [which was] his term.” Although Woodward took issue with some of Goldman’s aesthetic choices (“bad line,” he scrawled next to a scene in which his character says, “There’s good and bad in everything.”), most of his objections centered on liberties the screenwriter took with the truth, especially as it pertained to journalistic practice.
One of the most famous scenes in “All the President’s Men” occurs half an hour into the film, when Woodward and Bernstein go to the Library of Congress to follow up on a lead involving White House consultant E. Howard Hunt. In a masterful shot, the camera starts on Redford and Hoffman as they begin to go through stacks of book request slips one by one, pulling farther up in the library’s massive rotunda while David Shire’s ominous musical score begins to play. After hours of fruitless searching, they leave the library, wondering if someone pulled the cards or if they missed a name.
It’s a superbly choreographed scene, conveying both the minute details and sprawling magnitude of the investigation that has already begun to engulf the two reporters. But in Goldman’s 1974 draft, it ended differently. After examining the last few slips, they look at each other. Woodward: “Anything?” Bernstein: “Nothing worth a damn.” Woodward: “To hell with this, let’s write it anyway.”
“Wrong,” Woodward wrote next to the passage, with a slashing black mark under the last line. “Not only wrong, actually disturbing,” Woodward says now.
Redford had considered other directors for “All the President’s Men,” including Michael Ritchie, who had directed him in “The Candidate,” and William Friedkin, who had directed the gritty crime drama “The French Connection.” Thoughtful, analytical and deeply interested in people and their psychological motivations, Pakula had a vision for “All the President’s Men” that aligned perfectly with Redford’s: Both agreed that the adaptation would succeed only in proportion to how closely it tacked to the truth. But Pakula also realized that the little indie Redford initially had in mind was all wrong for the material. “I believed this colossal story needed attention to size,” Pakula told Redford’s biographer in 1996, just two years before Pakula was killed in a car accident. “We were dealing with something that could alter our view of investigative journalism and political office, so it had to feel big.” He hired cinematographer Gordon Willis – known as “the Prince of Darkness” for his expressive work on “The Godfather” and other films – who shot using a huge Panavision camera, and whose lighting scheme dramatically juxtaposed the dark, shadowy world of secrets Woodward and Bernstein were navigating and the transparent, brightly lit newsroom where those secrets would be exposed.
While Pakula and Redford continued to work on the script, Pakula later recalled, they spent “endless time” examining and discussing Woodward and Bernstein’s pasts and lives outside the newsroom, only gradually realizing that the scenes weren’t needed. “[W]e’re telling this story because of what they did,” Pakula explained later, “not because of their fascinating personal lives.”
Hoffman remembers an early, more intimate version of “All the President’s Men” to this day. After seeing it at a screening, he says, “I went to the bathroom, and I threw up. It was the first experience I had where I felt we were doing good work on a day-to-day basis, [but] it was a disaster.” Then, he says, Redford made a brilliant decision, completely countervailing the usual rules. “He said, ‘We should cut out the third dimension of our characters,’ ” Hoffman recalls. “The audience should only know us by what we’re doing in pursuit of the narrative.’ Which was The Washington Post.” Ex-wives, girlfriends and confessional speeches “went right out,” Hoffman says. “And it made all the difference.”
Woodward remembers spending hours with Pakula, who was continually plumbing his habits and psyche, and asking about Woodward’s childhood in Wheaton, Ill. The results of those sessions can be found in Goldman’s papers, which are full of single-spaced, typewritten notes, outlines and character diagrams, presumably written by Pakula. They can also be detected in a fleeting but revelatory moment in the film: When the two reporters are knocking on doors trying to find CREEP staffers to talk to them, Bernstein says, “All these neat little houses on all these nice little streets. It’s hard to believe that something’s wrong in some of those little houses.” “No, it isn’t,” Woodward replies tersely.
Both Redford and Hoffman spent considerable time with the real-life men they were playing (Hoffman even wore Bernstein’s watch during production). Jason Robards, who was cast as Ben Bradlee, took the opposite tack: After meeting Bradlee and spending a day observing him in the newsroom, Robards left “and never came back,” according to Bradlee’s widow, former Washington Post Style reporter Sally Quinn. The result was a performance that earned Robards an Oscar. “He absolutely got Ben,” Quinn says. Bradlee was thrilled with the portrayal, even though Robards hadn’t been his first choice: According to Hoffman, when Pakula shared the news that Robards would be playing him, Bradlee admitted that he would have preferred Fred Astaire.
Jane Alexander was doing a Noel Coward play at the Kennedy Center when she was cast as the Bookkeeper, a CREEP employee Bernstein visits and tensely cajoles into giving him information that will break in the story wide open. Her role remained virtually unchanged from Goldman’s first draft, which itself hewed almost verbatim to what Woodward and Bernstein wrote in their book. In a film of diamantine intensity, the Bookkeeper scene is the crown jewel – a taut, emotionally gripping two-hander with Alexander and Hoffman that is all the more explosive for being played at a whisper.
Alexander calls the Bookkeeper interview “my favorite scene that I’ve ever shot,” adding that it exemplifies Pakula’s gift for finding the proper tonal register throughout the film, as well as his astute sense of scale. “Take the scene in the Library of Congress and the scenes in the Washington Post newsroom and how huge they are,” she observes. “And then you come in on the pivotal scene in the movie that changes everything, and it’s tiny. Is that brilliant?”
– – –
“All the President’s Men” was a hit when it was released on April 9, 1976; the $8.5 million movie earned more than $70 million at the box office, eventually earning eight Oscar nominations. It won four, for art direction and set decoration, sound, Robard’s performance and Goldman’s screenplay. Despite the screenwriter’s miserable experience on “All the President’s Men,” which had completely ruptured his friendship with Redford, he delivered a simple and gracious acceptance speech. “This movie has been from the very beginning the obsession of Robert Redford,” Goldman said after recognizing Willis and Pakula. “Thank you.”
Her initial apprehensions about the movie notwithstanding, Katharine Graham was disappointed when she discovered she was not in the finished film – but Goldman had written a four-page scene between her and Woodward that was included in every draft of the movie (after considering Lauren Bacall, Pakula reportedly wanted Geraldine Page for the role). The scene is based on a conversation recounted both in the book “All the President’s Men” and Graham’s memoir “Personal History,” when she delicately dances around the identity of Deep Throat and the solidity of Woodward and Bernstein’s reporting. “Well now,” her character says at one point. “What are you boys doing with my newspaper?”
Former Post publisher Donald Graham doubts that his mother ever read the scene. Having recently read it himself for the first time, he calls the sequence “perfect,” even though he’s philosophical about it being cut. “It would have made the movie more truthful,” he notes, referring to his mother’s central role in supporting the reporters and their editors, and withstanding enormous pressure from the Nixon administration, which at one point threatened to challenge the Federal Communications Commission licenses of The Washington Post Co.’s television stations. “You can tell a lot in a movie, but you can’t tell everything,” Graham says, “but hers was a very important part of the story, and it’s too bad that it was left out.”
Over the years, Redford and Pakula would minimize Goldman’s involvement with “All the President’s Men,” claiming they used only 10% of what he wrote. But the memos, research notes, character breakdowns and more than a dozen screenplay drafts in Goldman’s papers suggest he was doing rewrites – admittedly based on Redford and Pakula’s suggestions and revisions – at least until the movie began production in May 1975. Contrary to Goldman’s memoir, neither Woodward nor Bernstein remembers the screenwriter visiting the Post’s newsroom; contrary to a story Redford has often repeated, the reporters don’t recall the actor accompanying them on reporting trips.
“The mystery of Watergate itself is mirrored in the mystery of the making of the movie,” Woodward says. “What are [the] motives? Who did what? My thought always was, ‘But of course!’ ” How could any story about “All the President’s Men” be otherwise?
Memory is a fugitive, a trickster and a seducer – all the more so when movies are involved. Of all artistic mediums, cinema occupies the trickiest space between fabrication and reality, exploiting the porous nature of both to become a third thing entirely: the distortion of the literal truth that becomes internalized as consensus history.
When Woodward and Bernstein were fact-checking Goldman’s scripts, neither objected to two of his most famous contrivances: Deep Throat’s signature line, “Follow the money,” and Ben Bradlee’s final speech, delivered by Robards after Woodward and Bernstein wake him up to tell him their lives might be in danger. “You guys are probably pretty tired, right?” Robards says with gruff gravitas. “Well, you should be. Go on home. Get a nice hot bath, rest up, 15 minutes. Then get your asses back in gear. We’re under a lot of pressure, you know, and you put us there. Nothing’s riding on this except the First Amendment of the Constitution, freedom of the press and maybe the future of the country.” (The speech in the movie largely hews to Goldman’s slightly wordier draft, in which the monologue ends with Bradlee’s signature quip, “What have you done for me tomorrow?”)
In real life, Bradlee’s response to Woodward and Bernstein’s late-night visit wasn’t quite as stirring. “He said, ‘What the hell do we do now?’ ” Woodward recalls. But both “Follow the money,” and Bradlee’s soliloquy are rooted in the truth, he insists, noting that during a meeting with Sam Ervin, who chaired the Senate Watergate Committee, he had told the senator that “the key was the secret campaign cash, and it should all be traced.” Goldman’s three-word distillation turned out to be perhaps the greatest paraphrase in Hollywood history.
Half a century after the events it depicts, “All the President’s Men” has taken on the contours of life itself. Journalism professors still use the film in classrooms to demonstrate the daily grind of reporting, from working the phones to knocking on doors. “If you can’t get ‘em on the phone, go to their house,” says Leonard Downie, who worked on the Watergate stories as deputy metro editor and would later become executive editor of The Post. “Even if you can get ‘em on the phone, go to their house.” Downie adds that “All the President’s Men” changed the very nature of journalism. “Investigative reporting just exploded” after the film came out, he says. “Investigative teams were created where they didn’t exist before, there were separate staffs that didn’t exist before. … It’s continued to this day.” The term “Follow the money” has become such newsroom shorthand that most young reporters have no idea that it came from a movie rather than the other way around.
Although enrollment at journalism schools didn’t skyrocket as a result of the movie, as has often been reported, the reason young people went into journalism changed. Redford had intended to lend his celebrity to elevate the serious and undervalued work of investigative reporting; instead, he fueled a trend of journalists becoming stars themselves, a phenomenon that only grew throughout the 1980s and 1990s. “I was naive,” he said in 2005. “My whole focus was on being totally accurate. … I wasn’t prepared for the glamorization of just Dustin and [me] being in it.”
“The movie did an incredibly good job of portraying what the world of being an investigative journalist was,” former Post reporter Tom Zito said in a 2016 oral history of the film published in the Washingtonian. “But I don’t think that’s why people wanted to be investigative journalists. I think it was because they wanted to be Carl Bernstein or Bob Woodward played by Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford.”
Redford’s choice to focus on the first few months of Woodward and Bernstein’s reporting had other unintended consequences: The time frame of the story elided some decisions that even they wrestled with at the time of their investigation, which included revealing an FBI source to his boss and approaching grand jury witnesses for interviews (albeit after getting an OK from Post lawyers). “All the President’s Men” includes one scene that obliquely addresses the question of ethics, when Bernstein asks a friend at the phone company to turn over call records. Early drafts of the script feature Bernstein saying, “My God, if John Mitchell was after my phone records, I’d be screaming about my civil rights,” a fair reflection of the ambivalence he felt at the time and wrote about in the book. However, in the finished film it’s Bernstein’s contact who says that line.
“The point of the movie is that these guys are unstoppable,” explains Boorstin, the associate producer. “They’re a force of nature and they’re going to save the world.”
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Woodward and Bernstein were famous before “All the President’s Men” came out, but the movie would cement their status as journalistic giants whose iconic place in the culture has, remarkably, not diminished over 50 years. It would also perpetuate the myth that they and The Washington Post brought down a president. The leadership of the paper had to fight that assumption throughout the coverage, with the White House continually accusing them of partisan bias, a claim that dogged the paper for years. “Nixon got Nixon,” Bradlee said in 1997. “The Post didn’t get Nixon.”
Garrett M. Graff, who wrote “Watergate: A New History,” considers “All the President’s Men” “the greatest celebration of American journalism we’ve ever had. … From a cinematic standpoint, from an inspirational standpoint, from a learning device of American history standpoint, it’s one of the greatest movies of all time.” Still, he says, the movie has become the sum total of what most Americans know or remember about Watergate, and as such has simultaneously telescoped and flattened our understanding of a complex collection of people and events.
“In drawing a straight line from Woodward and Bernstein to Nixon’s resignation,” Graff says, “[the movie] underplays and undervalues the incredible work and majesty of American democracy that unfolded from January 1973 to August 1974, as Washington confronted a corrupt and criminal president.”
Because the main plot of the film ends in October 1972, he explains, it necessarily leaves out the work of congressional and Senate investigators, special prosecutors, the FBI, the Justice Department and the Supreme Court – not to mention the release of incriminating tapes during the spring of 1974 – that gave Nixon no choice but to resign.
“Part of what’s so fascinating about Watergate is that there were so many heroes in the story,” Graff continues. “And ‘All the President’s Men’ shows us two, but two of whom without all of the rest of them, Richard Nixon would have happily retired as a hugely successful second-term president in January 1977, and Watergate would be a political trivia question.”
For his part, Redford has no misgivings about his movie’s portrayal of history. “I’m proud of the story,” he writes in an email, “because it showcased the high point of journalism and the low point of politics.”
“All the President’s Men” has endured as a canonical piece of 20th-century American cinema, but it also marked the end of an era for the great paranoid thrillers of the 1970s. It might have been smart, sophisticated and perfectly crafted, but it lost the best picture Oscar to “Rocky”; significantly, it was released one year after “Jaws” and one year before “Star Wars,” defining a brief interregnum before the movie industry would embark on a chase for action, adventure and infantilizing escapism that has only accelerated.
Released in an election year when Gerald Ford was running against Jimmy Carter, “All the President’s Men” could claim at least a measure of credit for reminding voters of what Ford pardoned Nixon for; at a time when the country was eager to move on and consign Watergate to the consoling mists of memory, at the very least Redford’s passion project planted a marker to say: Watergate happened, and it mattered.
Does it still matter? Redford writes that during Watergate, “both sides of the aisle worked together to get to the truth. Today, I am bewildered because the truth is missing.”
Woodward agrees completely, noting that he sees “the shadow of Richard Nixon” in the corruption, impunity, destruction of institutional norms and attacks on the media that have only metastasized in recent years. Fifty years ago, Woodward and Bernstein were writing about conspiracies; today they have turned their attention to an attempted coup, the efforts of the spouse of a Supreme Court justice to overturn an election and a seven-hour gap in White House call logs during a deadly insurrection at the U.S. Capitol – an eerie echo of the infamous 18.5-minute gap in Nixon’s taped calls. In a way, the final scene of “All the President’s Men,” with Woodward and Bernstein working intently at their typewriters, never ended. “We thought Watergate was a one-time problem in the presidency,” Woodward says, “and then along came Donald Trump.”
An “All the President’s Men” movie about the Trump era isn’t impossible, Woodward says, but it would take “hard work and a sound idea.” A thornier question is whether it would make a difference. Reporters will continue to investigate and make sense of what happened during the Trump presidency, but does it still take a cinematic masterpiece – or even just a movie – to make people care? Woodward pauses before answering in his slow, flatland drawl. “That’s a good and painful question.”
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