“These Are Not Very Bright Guys”: The Lessons of All the President’s Men, 45 Years Later

Certain movies, through some magic combination of critical success and box office receipts, define the genres of which they’re a part. The canon is thankfully, and finally, changing and expanding, especially as more filmmaking opportunities are given to people who aren’t just white men and women. But a select few films transcend. Jaws is the definitive summer horror flick, Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet the definitive Shakespeare adaptation, The Fast and the Furious the definitive ludicrous action franchise. And every journalism movie since 1976 has operated in the shadow of All the President’s Men, shown in countless high school classrooms, studied at J-schools, and still a poignant reminder of the widespread corruption, malfeasance, and paranoia that marked a definitive turning point in American politics. Neither Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy nor Spotlight exists without Alan J. Pakula’s classic, and that’s a legacy: when both Will Ferrell’s glass case of emotion and a Best Picture Academy Award winner are indebted to you. 

This is brusque, but feels true: All the President’s Men would not have the same impact if it were released today. Do Americans still care about journalism? Two years after All the President’s Men was released in theaters, Earl C. Gottschalk Jr. wrote a hand-wringing piece for The Wall Street Journal about how “Students favor journalism, but jobs are scarce … Unhappily [universities] are graduating far more students than the journalism job market can absorb.” 40 years later, Gottschalk’s piece seems eerily prescient: “The problem is that the job outlook for journalism students is grim, partly because of the oversupply of graduates and partly because the recession caused so many news staffs to be cut back.” The industry is in shambles; according to the firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas, there were 16,160 American newsroom layoffs in 2020, which is 13% higher than the previous record of 14,265 cuts reported in 2008. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in 2018 that newspaper jobs have fallen 65% since 2000, nearly 300 daily newspapers have closed, and 1,000 journalists are laid off every month—a faster rate than the decrease in coal mining jobs. Whistleblower movies aren’t exactly journalism movies, but the subgenres overlap, and a number of recent films in the former category—2010’s The Whistleblower, 2016’s Snowden, 2017’s The Post, 2019’s The Report—were released and almost exclusively ignored by audiences. The Post, with its awkward final nod to All the President’s Men, is the only one that had a noticeable impact at the box office, and that’s because the triple threat of Steven Spielberg, Meryl Streep, and Tom Hanks is pretty impossible to deny. 

Putting aside industry questions, a larger one presents itself: Do Americans still care about the truth? We can barely seem to agree on it, thanks to the devastating impact of Fox News, conservative telecommunications conglomerates like the Sinclair Broadcast Group, and disinformation on social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. More than 555,000 Americans have died from COVID-19, but 41% of Republicans polled said they won’t get vaccinated; conspiracy theories and hoax claims still persist. After the Jan. 6 insurrectionist attack encouraged by former President Donald J. Trump, Republicans lied about who was doing the storming, claiming it was antifa members masquerading as Trump supporters. It is impossible to overstate the devastating impact of “fake news” and all the ego, bluster, and delusion that goes along with people who genuinely use the term. 

A journalism movie, criticizing a partisan president, opening at No. 1 at the box office now? Impossible to imagine. But All the President’s Men was a uniting pop culture artifact that explained to Americans who hadn’t followed The Washington Post’s coverage, or who hadn’t read Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward’s 1974 same-named nonfiction book, exactly what President Richard Nixon and his army of sycophants, enablers, White House staff, and U.S. intelligence community members did wrong before, during, and after the 1972 break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate complex. 

Robert Redford, already a major star after 1969’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, 1973’s The Sting and The Way We Were, 1974’s The Great Gatsby, and 1975’s Three Days of the Condor, threw his A-list power and Wildwood Enterprises production company behind All the President’s Men. In a 1975 Baltimore Sun profile by Rex Reed, Redford “gets almost misty” when he talks about the film. “I’m very enthusiastic about it, but not for the reasons you might think. I’m excited about making a film that will inform people. … I’m cynical but optimistic,” Redford said.

Redford’s production gamble paid off. All the President’s Men made nearly ten times its $7 million budget, received eight Academy Award nominations (winning for Best Supporting Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Art Direction and Best Sound), and was met with a slew of critical praise. (Ironically enough, not from the Post itself; reviewer Gary Arnold wrote that the film was “an absorbing movie that somehow fails to evolve into a rousing, dramatically satisfying movie as well. … lacks an expansive vision and an elemental spark of showmanship and inspiration”). In 2010, the film was preserved in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress, the location of the film’s most iconic scene. In 2013, Redford produced the documentary “All The President’s Men” Revisited, which posited, as former Post TV critic Hank Stuever wrote in his review, that Watergate would play out differently in the age of social media. “What took Woodward and Bernstein (and other news organizations and, lest anyone forget, prosecutors) weeks and months to piece together could come together in a day or two,” Stuever summarized as former Post executive editor Marcus Brauchli’s description of our “new media landscape and why things can never be like they were.” And in 2015, Academy voters told The Hollywood Reporter that if they could, they would name All the President’s Men the Best Picture of 1976 instead of the originally awarded Rocky

But what we’re seeing from the Republicans in the era of Trump isn’t much different from Republicans in the time of Nixon, and their contemporaneous reactions to the film. The New York Times, perhaps salty at the Post breaking the story as thoroughly as they did, ran a series in which “each of the persons involved in the Watergate scandal and mentioned or portrayed in [the film] was asked by the Times to comment on whether or not the movie dealt fairly with the facts.” The result was that people like Herbert G. Klein, former White House Communications Director, and Kenneth H. Dahlberg, former Midwestern Chairman of the Finance Committee to Re-elect President Nixon (CRP, but more fittingly pronounced as CREEP), were given column inches to go all holier-than-thou (Klein’s “the good ‘President’s Men,’ and their good deeds, are ignored”) or pouty (Dahlberg’s “I was portrayed as a nervous, scared, and apprehensive man, somebody with something to hide. Fact: I was very straightforward and up-front”). Even back then, the mainstream media’s desperate desire for evenhandedness gave way to “both sides” foolishness. 

Does any Republican whining diminish the perfection of All the President’s Men? Not one bit. Not the inexorable tension captured by Pakula’s crisp, engaging direction. Not the layers of typewriter keys, slammed doors, and pen scratching on paper molded into stellar sound design by Arthur Piantadosi, Les Fresholtz, Dick Alexander and James E. Webb. Not the shadowy blue parking garages, flatly fluorescent newsrooms, neatly disorganized desks, and well-to-do suburban sitting rooms designed by art director George Jenkins and set director George Gaines. Not the oppositional camaraderie captured by Redford as the ambitious but upright Woodward and Dustin Hoffman as the twitchier livewire Carl Bernstein. “Howard, they’re hungry. You remember when you were hungry?” says Jack Warden as Metro editor Harry Rosenfeld, all irritation and defensiveness when Martin Balsam’s managing editor Howard Simons tries to reassign the story away from Woodward and Bernstein. That hunger defines All the President’s Men in two ways: the Post reporters and editors chasing the story, insistent on uncovering the truth, and the Republican web surrounding Nixon, desperate to retain their power and protect their corruption. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? 


All the President’s Men bookends itself with news footage and extreme close-ups of paper being fed into a typewriter, subject to the extremely jarring clacking of keys and the black ink they hold. The film begins on June 1, 1972, the night that Nixon returned from a historic summit with the USSR in Moscow and delivered a triumphant address to both houses of Congress and the Supreme Court. The screen fades to black. On June 17, two flashlights provide pinpoints of light in the offices of the Watergate complex. A group of five men lug duffel bags of recording equipment into the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee, unpacking their contraband using gloved hands in front of a portrait of assassinated President John F. Kennedy. When they’re caught hiding, sweaty, and sheepish, and arrested, the hundreds of dollars they’re carrying, the Cuban heritage of some of the men, and a shared entry in more than one address book—“H. Hunt, W. House”—pique the interest of reporter Bob Woodward (Redford). 

During his nine months at the Post, Woodward only cut his teeth on various low-level local stories, but his instincts are good. He asks the questions that need asking, and he asks them again and again. “If no one asked you to be here, why are you here?” he asks, with an easy smile, the lawyer he suspects is supporting the arrested five at the courthouse. He’ll continue following the man throughout the day, refusing to accept his repetitive denials (“I’m not here”; I just don’t have anything to say”; “They’re not my clients”; “I don’t want to talk about this anymore”; “I have nothing else to say”). Equally dogged is Bernstein (Hoffman), who has been in the industry longer and who hovers all over the newsroom. One of cinematographer Gordon Willis’s early split-diopter shots captures Bernstein lingering outside of an editor’s office, unabashedly eavesdropping on the details of Woodward’s story. When he begins “polishing” Woodward’s filed draft without his permission, a begrudging partnership forms. “Could be a story, or could just be crazy Cubans,” Rosenfeld theorizes, and Woodward and Bernstein are on it. (Later advice, from Rosenfeld again: “Don’t fuck it up.”)

The prevailing theme: Questions that need asking. In the buzzing newsroom, making calls upon calls, talking to sources who deny, change their stories, lie, or simply are never available. In the Library of Congress (a filming location only secured once Motion Picture Association of America then-president Jack Valenti intervened on behalf of the film), Willis’s camera moving back and back and back, situating Woodward and Bernstein as two little ants trapped inside a panopticon. In the DC streets, meeting with sources in cafes in sunny afternoons and with Woodward’s deep background source Deep Throat (Hal Holbrook) in the early morning dark. “Follow the money,” Deep Throat tells Woodward, and the reporters use that dictum to guide them forward. 

Why did the burglars have former CIA operative Hunt’s name and number? (His answer to Woodward about that: “Good God.”) How much money did Maurice Stans, finance chairman of CRP, have access to, and what did he use it for? Will anyone who works for CRP talk? What are their titles? Could Woodward and Bernstein get to them through their assistants, secretaries, or aides? What evidence did CRP bookkeeper Judy Hoback Miller (Jane Alexander, nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award) see before it was destroyed? What did Attorney General and Nixon campaign chairman John N. Mitchell do that scared Miller so much? (“Jesus. Jesus,” Mitchell says when Bernstein calls to confirm a story.) What did CRP treasurer Hugh W. Sloan Jr. (Stephen Collins) tell a grand jury about the White House Plumbers, and what did he not say about White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman? “Rat fucking” is how someone describes the Republicans’ uniformly underhanded methods, and one of the film’s tensest scenes also includes one of its funniest line deliveries: Holbrook’s bemused “You think something this size just happens?” as Deep Throat nearly laughs off Woodward’s shock at the broad scale of the conspiracy. 

It is a credit to William Goldman’s adaptation of Woodward and Bernstein’s book, and how steadily he fits together puzzle piece after puzzle piece, that audiences can keep track of all these names and all their myriad connections. What counts as evidence, what role common sense plays, and what dangers are held in assumptions all come up, too, as Goldman’s script probes at the difference between suspecting something and being able to prove it. Putting viewers alongside Woodward and Bernstein and discovering what they do, as they do, keeps the narrative tangible, and Pakula punches up certain iconic lines (“It’s a nondenial denial”; “If you guys fuck up again, I’m going to get mad”) so they sear into our memory. The Post’s own movie review bristled at how the film version of the book chops off nearly its entire back half (as Arnold sniped, ending at “page 200 of a 336-page book”), but that complaint ignores the effectiveness of the film’s final moments. Pakula’s juxtaposition of Nixon on the newsroom TV, being sworn in for his second term as president, with Woodward and Bernstein typing separately at facing desks, the camera creeping closer and closer, steadily edging out Nixon until only the reporters are in the frame, and the steady drone of their typewriters is given primacy. The dissolve from the reporters to their typed pages underscores this, tracking the rapid typing of a number of headlines from 1973 to 1974. Guilty pleas, convictions, prison sentences, until finally, with stark finality: “NIXON RESIGNS.” 

“What else besides the money? Where’s the goddamn story?” growls executive editor Ben Bradlee (Jason Robards) after foreign editor Scott (John McMartin), one of the few fictional characters in the film, plainly tells Bradlee, “I don’t believe this story. It doesn’t make sense.” The invented, doubtful Scott serves as a sort of stand-in for all those who couldn’t believe that the Republicans would be so reckless as to try and bug the Democratic National Committee, or smear and undermine their opponents, or engage in blackmail, or record incriminating conversations without the consent of all parties. But all of that happened. Some of that probably still continues to happen. “Forget the myths the media created about the White House. The truth is, these are not very bright guys, and things got out of hand,” Deep Throat says in All the President’s Men, a film that does plenty of myth making of its own. 

“These are not very bright guys” would be a reassurance for Democrats, perhaps, except for the example of Charles Colson, former special counsel to Nixon who Haldeman described as the president’s “hit man.” He organized attacks on students protesting the Vietnam War, he targeted anti-war activist John Kerry, he threatened Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg, and he helped engineer the Watergate break-in—and when he converted to evangelical Christianity in 1973, became a major figure on the evangelical right. After serving seven months in federal prison, Colson wrapped himself in the cloak of godliness: “Arrogance was the greatest sin of Watergate, the great sin of a lot of us … I think the great sin all of us are guilty of, and it’s the hardest one to recognize, is admiring our own ego, our own selves,” he’s quoted as saying in “Crime and Contrition: Or, How Do You Prove You’re Sincerely Sorry When the Liberals Now Thirst for Revenge?”, a 1974 piece by Post Outlook editor William Greider. In ensuing decades, Colson tied the idea of prison reform to Christian doctrine through the organization Prison Fellowship, funneled the support of religious conservatives around an array of Republican presidents and politicians, opposed same-sex marriage and Darwinism, and supported the post-Sept. 11, 2001, invasion of Iraq. He was awarded the Presidential Citizens Medal by President George W. Bush in 2008 and died in 2012 as a hero to conservatives, with his prison sentence a footnote—or perhaps even a badge of honor. 

It would be easy to nod along with Deep Throat and feel morally superior to everyone punished because of Watergate, and certainly no one involved in All the President’s Men could have guessed that Colson would secure a second act in American life. But perhaps all the damage Colson continued to do to this country after he was slapped on the wrist for Watergate is the unintentional warning that All the President’s Men offers viewers now. Ask questions, follow the money, get something on paper. Not everyone will believe you, but some people will. That might not be enough, but as Woodward and Bernstein showed us: It’s a start.   

“All the President’s Men” is now streaming on HBO Max.

Roxana Hadadi writes about film, television, and culture with sides of judgment and thirst. She is a Tomatometer-approved critic on Rotten Tomatoes and a member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association, the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, and the Online Film Critics Society. She holds an MA in literature and lives outside Baltimore, Maryland.

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