Director: Alan J Pakula
Screenplay: William Goldman
Starring: Robert Redford, Dustin Hoffman, Hal Holbrook, Jason Robards
Running Time: 138 mins
BBFC Classification: 15
‘June 1, 1972’. These letter and numbers appear on screen one by one, close-up, each accompanied by the clash of the typewriter key loud as a gunshot. This is history.
This is All the President’s Men, the story not of the Watergate scandal and Richard Nixon’s eventual resignation, but of Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman), the Washington Post reporters who brought the story to light.
It’s a tale of the pen being mightier than the sword, or more specifically the power of the written word, and of truth, in exposing the parts of our world that exist in the shadows.
All the President’s Men deals in those contrasts, the dichotomies of light and dark, truth and lies, public and private, what’s known and what’s unknown. And this is brought to the fore thanks to masterful visual storytelling, an amazing script and an incredible cast. Seriously, this film is the perfect storm of unbelievable talent. It is, unequivocally, a masterpiece, whatever your definition of the word might be.
From the typewritten opening shot, we then see news footage of Richard Nixon, all smiles as he’s applauded by congress, ready to address the people of America. We’re then plunged into the darkness of the Watergate break-in, the clandestine, criminal underbelly of the President’s public persona.
Woodward and Bernstein themselves are a contrasting pair. One a handsome, blonde, Republican WASP only nine months into the job, the other a dark-haired, Jewish, liberal who was almost fired a month prior to the story. Their reporting styles are different, they don’t get along particularly, but the script and direction shows their remarkable growth as a duo, from initially being mistakenly called ‘Woodstein’, a single entity of so little importance to the Post’s upper echelons that their individual identities are irrelevant, to eventually being on the same wavelength to the point of finishing each other’s sentences (Redford and Hoffman learnt each other’s lines so they could do this at any point in the film).
At each step of the gradual unraveling of the Watergate thread, the two men need to convince newspaper staff at ever-increasing levels. Arguing their case and gradually convincing each one to come over to their side of the camera, and the story.
The scandal’s unfolding and import, and the duo’s fame (which brings with it an ever-increasing sense of danger), is also masterfully shown. Each time a new part of the story makes the paper we see it rise from the bottom of the front page, to just below the fold, above the fold and eventually main headline. The final bookended shot shows another typewritten piece which states: ‘1974, The Washington Post, August 9, 1974 – Washington. Nixon resigns’. Neither Woodward nor Bernstein’s names are on it. It’s no longer their story, it now belongs to history.
Gordon Willis’ cinematography here is astounding; from the famous needle-in-a-haystack shots to harsh lights of the newsroom (where reporters uncover hard truths) and the claustrophobic shadows of the underground parking lot where Woodward meets the infamous Deep Throat (Hal Holbrook), an FBI operative looking to expose Nixon, who brings information and truth out of the darkness and into the light.
This is a story of everyday heroism, about doing the right thing, and standing on the side of truth. And not just Woodward and Bernstein, but the people who stood up and helped them get the story into the open. What’s surprising, watching this 40-year-old film, is that the scandal itself doesn’t feel all that shocking to modern eyes, but sadly the idea that simple truth and integrity can overcome corruption does. Here’s to all the people out there looking to shed light on the world.
All the President’s Men is out on Blu-Ray and DVD on Warner Bros Home Entertainment’s HMV Premium Blu-ray Collection