Tension, Paranoia, and All The President’s Men

If Watergate’s so goddamned important, who in the hell are Woodward and Bernstein?

All The President’s Men is a film that I wouldn’t have normally chosen to watch.

Made in 1976, it follows young Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s investigation into early Watergate evidence. Relying heavily on vague hints and anonymous sources, the pair break news on the biggest scandal in U.S. history, and the events that led up to the only time a U.S. president has resigned.

Carl Bernstein: [Walking up to the Sloans’ house] All these neat, little houses and all these nice, little streets… It’s hard to believe that something’s wrong with some of those little houses.

Bob Woodward: No, it isn’t.

I had only a vague idea about Watergate before watching because it isn’t discussed much in England. I think most of what I knew I’d gleaned from references in The Simpsons, and even those were ambiguous allusions that mostly served the purpose of caricaturing Nixon.

However, All The President’s Men was a film that every American in 1976 knew the ending to. The Watergate hearing that followed Woodward and Bernstein’s breakthrough was broadcast as a total of 319 hours of television between May and August of 1974, and 85% of Americans watched at least one channel’s coverage of it.

When I was watching the film, what I found remarkable wasn’t the historical events but the understated production value. There’s no overblown drama or action sequences. No music used to make tension out of nothing. Not much of anything apart from telephone conversations, typing, driving, and arguing.

“Goddammit, when is somebody going to go on the record in this story?! You guys are about to write a story that says the former Attorney General, the highest-ranking law enforcement officer in this country, is a crook! Just be sure you’re right…” — Ben Bradlee, Washington Post executive editor (Jason Robards)

In a way, its minimalism is brave. The dense plot is something you’re expected to be clued in on, which can make it sparse and difficult to watch at times. But that’s something I was told to expect. In the words of Lee’s dad in episode 7 of the podcast, “there’s no let up with it”.

All The President’s Men is a slow collage of mysterious events. Beautifully paced and skillfully monotonous, every shot is an understatement.

I can imagine that wouldn’t be the case if the film was made today. In the hands of a modern director with the industry in its current state, The Woodman would be a gun-wielding tough guy with his badass sidekick Bernbro, the maverick that always gets his way, with or without the approval of The Man. Anonymous informant Deep Throat would say ‘follow the money‘ a couple thousand more times so the trailer had plenty of material that people could nod along to.


And it’s for that reason that I’m glad the film was made in ’76. The events of Watergate were fresh, and documented in Woodward and Bernstein’s book All The President’s Men, then crafted into a tense, historically accurate film of the same name just two years later. The timing of the film’s production was so perfect that the real security guard who discovered the initial break-in at Watergate played himself in the short opening segment.

The amusing (and relieving) thing is, it could well have been a shallow, overblown detective story if it had been filmed with its original script. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid screenwriter William Goldman’s original work was unanimously rejected by Woodward, Bernstein, and The Washington Post. In one of the most brilliant off-the-cuff remarks ever made, Bernstein called the original All The President’s Men script “Butch Woodward and the Sundance Bernstein”.

The moment the closing credits started rolling, I read the entire Watergate Wikipedia article twice, poured over the timeline of events, and watched a CBS interview with Woodward and Bernstein.

I’ve never been one to lap up political scandal (or even understand it) but this film could well be the starting point of my next obsession.

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