The Watergate burglary of Democratic National Headquarters, recounted later in the movie "All The President's Men," happened 44 years ago today, on June 17, 1972.
See what our film critic had to say about the Hollywood Watergate tale when the film premiered in 1976:
“All the President’s Men” is a terrific movie – the best film about newspaper reporters ever made, one of the most enjoyable action pictures you’ll see this year and a classic example of how to make an important social and political statement within the framework of an unpretentious detective story whose revelations speak for themselves.
“All the President’s Men” is a quintessential American movie: It does a lot of things well and makes it all look simple. It works on several levels.
Most important, in terms of getting seen, it works as a superstar genre movie, a shared male adventure, a “buddy” picture, an entertainment. As, respectively, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman are reporters, make us share their exhilaration because the care about their big story.
The story, the fact-gathering, the work, is the star of the movie. And the investigative team is star-struck; they’re described by their editors as ambitious, or “hungry” newshounds.
That story, of course, is the Watergate burglary of Democratic National Headquarters June 17, 1972, and the trail that led to the White House. The movie is faithful to the book, which ends before Sen. Sam Ervin began the Watergate hearings in 1973.
To compress the book into two hours and 18 minutes, the movie sacrifices anything that might impede the flow of the story.
The movie is so fair that it is cautious. Trying not to be sensational (and maybe even not to lose Republican ticket-buyers), the movie refrains from gloating over Richard Nixon’s resignation (announced by teletype at film’s end) and denies us total emotional release and satisfaction.
No matter. It merely adds to the stature of “All the President’s Men” that such self-restraint kept it a straightforward step-by-step investigation. The story is unambiguous. “Lest we forget,” may be Redford’s motive. But his movie is history, not propaganda.
This is a visual film about words. Director Alan Pakula and his uniformly excellent cast have designed intelligent and tasteful visual equivalents for word processes. Like having us peek over Redford’s shoulder when he traces by telephone, Howard Hunt to Charles Colson’s office at the White House. We see with reporters’ eyes; no more. So as the pattern develops, and the reporter doesn’t know where it is leading, we watch him doodle, jot down names and numbers, sketch faces, start to draw lines and connecting names. We see him thinking. And we get the nitty gritty experience of doing legwork by phone (later they’re knocking on doors for information at night).
In a movie notable for its staccato rhythms, the ending is too abrupt – a minor misgiving. It just seems to run out of energy, fall dead in its tracks. The audience asks for a triumphant ending; the movie adds a teletype footnote, that’s it.
Redford and Hoffman are the Yin and the Yang of this dynamic balance of opposites, of dramatically contrasted yet unified styles. They work with vigor, conviction and humor. (Redford’s fluffs look real, are incorporated into the authentic documentary feel of the film.) They embody contrast – the WASP, blond, decorous, aloof Redford-Woodward and the swarthy, aggressive, Jewish, intuitive Hoffman-Bernstein.
“All The President’s Men” opened yesterday at the UA Syosset, as well as at the Loews Astor Plaza and Loews Tower East. I like it, admire it, was stirred by it. Actor-producer Redford, who conceived and controlled the $8.5 million production, deserves kudos.
It captures the tempo and methods of reporting as no other film has. Character is defined by behavior, to allow the focus to be on the complex detection work. Hoffman, for instance, loiters around his editor’s office, sniffing a better story that the routine one to which he’s been assigned and which he hasn’t finished yet. He’s instantly recognizable as an energy junkie, always on the lookout for his dynamite connection. Redford is the rookie, nine months on the paper.
Among the best scenes in the film is the daily story conference at the Post. The editors (among them martin Balsam and Jack Warden) sit there making fun not only of Nixon and his administration but all of the politicians, including Herbert Humphrey and George McGovern. They joke about McGovern not being able to give away his vice presidential slot.
The movie doesn’t show the incidents, mentioned by Woodstein in the book, where they broke the law themselves, like them men they were investigating. Judge John Sirica reprimanded them in his court for trying to make grand jurors divulge testimony. And the government informer Deep Throat is so hokey that he’s the only unreal character to jump out at us.
There’s a portentous, but satisfying for all that, scene with Woodstein and executive editor Ben Bradlee on his front lawn at night, in which he tells them that freedom of the press and the future of the country rests in their hands. Very heavy. But it’s the single note of self-congratulation in a story worthy of the Pulitzer Prize it finally earned.
The hero of the movie, in one sense, is the archetypal senior editor, Bradlee, played with flamboyant grace by Jason Robards. Gruff, dapper, supportive. Robards has the juiciest role. He gets some of the most appreciative laughs. He combines the real life functions of two persons, Bradlee and Post publisher Katherine Graham, without whose trust and approval the paper would not have kept the Watergate story alive during the risky days of the 1972 presidential campaign.
“All the President’s Men” has the impact of a 1970s Frank Capra populist comedy (i.e. the triumph of truth over political deceit) that uses suspense and action to reaffirm faith in the democratic process. It is, spiritually, kin to “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”
The Movie Director’s from Long Beach
By Stan Isaacs
Alan Pakula, the 48-year-old director of “All the President’s Men,” lived in Long Beach until he was 14. “I went back to Long Beach about a year ago,” he said, “and saw the house I lived in. I walked on the boardwalk. It brought back all the old Walter Mitty fantasies, my dreams of being whisked off to Hollywood. I didn’t want to be an actor, I wanted to be famous.”
He said, “I saw the Laurel Theater. In those days we used ot go to a movie every Saturday afternoon. I saw the Lido Theater and I remembered seeing ‘Naughty Marietta’ and ‘Captain’s Courageous.’ At 12 the great dream I had was that I’d get off a plane in Hollywood be surrounded by reporters and I’d say, ‘Please boys, no comment.’” Pakula was in Manhattan talking about “All the President’s Men,” which has opened to rave reviews. He had gone from Long Beach High to Bronx Science High in Manhattan and the Hill School, a prep school, before going on to Yale and a movie career, moving from an apprenticeship to producing to directing. He’s had some fine movies: “The Sterile Cuckoo” and “Klute.”
Paluka said, “When the Watergate hearings were on television, I was busy making ‘The Paralax View’ [a movie about right-wing conspiracies to assassinate political leaders]. We were concerned about the believability of our film, but while watching the Watergate hearings I recall thinking that what was being uncovered in the Watergate hearings was beyond even our film.”
When he was ready to start work on “President’s Men” he said, “My mind was full of all the standard clichés about reporters. They were not very different from the one I had as a kid.”
So Pakula went about digging into what newspapers and the reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein was really like. “I went to the Washington Post and I sat around and watched what was going on. I sat at Woodward’s desk when he wasn’t there; I attended the editorial meetings that you see in the film. I loved the idea of being there. Reliving the things they did was like a fantasy.”
Paluka said he relied tremendously on Woodward and Bernstein for accuracy, taping conversations with them, having them reminisce what it had been like at certain times. “When I started work on this movie, the big thing to me was to figure out how to film how you get people to tell you things that they don’t want to tell you. How do you worm your way in, how do you tramp them or whatever? At the Washington Post and with Woodward and Bernstein I began to understand. It’s not unlike a director’s work in drawing out an actor, getting him to trust you. You find out where the areas of insecurities and doubts are and you work to create an atmosphere where people are not afraid to make mistakes.”
There is little question the movie does capture the flavor of the newspaper business, of what certain reporting is all about. It shows Woodstein’s successes, but it also shows how routine and boring – and unproductive – some of the digging and probing can be. The highest tribute I can think of for the movie is that it does justice to people like Brian Donovan, John Cummings, Bob Wyrick, and Knut Royce - some of the crack investigative reporters we have around here.
The movie is more significant than that. It is a reminder of Watergate and all its implications. Because it’s a movie – a good one – it will drive home anew some lessons that too many politicians are unable or unwilling to discuss. Senator Henry Jackson says people don’t want to hear about Watergate; maybe they don’t want to hear about it in the boring way Jackson would discuss it, but Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman are something else.
Pakula said, “I wasn’t a Nixon fan and it’s true I vote Democratic more than Republican, but this wasn’t a propaganda effort. The thing about Woodward and Bernstein is that they would have gone after a corrupt Democratic President just as hard. The film is anti-corruption. There were a lot of cheap shots against Nixon we could have used, but we didn’t; we had only three shots of Nixon. We were not there to punish people but to tell a story about a corruption and what it could have done to our country.”
The story is there on many levels. The opening TV shot of Gerald Ford nominating Richard Nixon at the 1972 Republican Convention is a reminder of the Ford-Nixon tie. When Nixon nominated Ford ot replace the disgraced Spiro Agnew, Nixon already was guilty of offenses for which he was able to be impeached and for which he would have to be pardoned to escape possible prosecution. There were people who argued that this tainted man had no right to name the man who would be the next President. In retrospect, the point has particular validity. But Nixon was allowed to name Ford, and Ford then went on to pardon him – and we there are people who blithely go around saying we should forget Watergate.
The movie ends at the point when the rest of the press begins to take Watergate as seriously as Woodstein. Pakula said, “It ends on the irony of their biggest defeat [a mistake about whether Bob Haldeman had been named by a witness before the grand jury]. We couldn’t end it that way if the audience didn’t know they would go on to the great victory of brining all the President’s men to justice.”
“All the President’s Men” is such a good movie, it’s worthy of the Lido and the Laurel.