by Benjamin Premi-Reiller
POL128 Politics & Film - Ryerson University
The movie All the President’s Men portrays a real life story of the investigative reporting by two journalists, Carl Burnstein and Bob Woodward, into the burglary of Watergate. The investigation uncovers corruption at the highest levels of government. During this era, investigative reporting was conducted with minimal technology necessitating significant investment of human resources.
Using the article “Setting the scene: A theory of film and politics: by Chris and Haas”: “All the president’s men” is a film with strong political content and intent with three evident underlying themes. These include: the importance of a strong press to hold government accountable; how individuals will put their job security and safety at risk in the face of government corruption; and, the importance of social class in the application of the law and power.
In exploring the themes, this paper will identify cinematographic elements that help to convey the themes. This done by describing sound, camera shots, mood and pace.
Importance of a strong press
Politics is about power and control. This movie is about whether the public, through journalists, had the right to the information regarding the Watergate burglary. The film portrays the journalists as individuals doing the noble thing to try and hold the government accountable. The intent of the message is clear.
The content of the movie underscores that there are two elements of a strong press; one is the allocation of resources and the other is political courage. The film portrays both as being key to the success of the journalists. When the head of the Washington Post assigns the journalists to the Watergate burglary, he takes a great risk of putting the reputation of his company on the line. This is exemplified by his skepticism of the journalist’s evidence throughout the narrative. To crack the case, the head of the Washington Post deploys the two journalists to the case for an extended amount of time. The filmmaker portrays the resource intensity of the investigation through the long hours, day and night, and the progressively exhausted look of the journalists. The head of the Washington post assigns the journalists, weighing that it is worth the opportunity costs of missing other stories. It is worth pondering what would have happened if the editor hadn’t allocated the resources to this story
Pursing this story is a risky and bold project considering they are the only newspaper agency reporting on it. The following quote from Ben Bradley underscores how high the stakes are; “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”. The film maker successfully creates a mood of tension and many of the dialogues are delivered in shouting conversations. Today it is rare to see such boldness because newspaper agencies are always chasing the stories that reward the highest rating and are not willing to invest in uncertain ventures.
Personal sacrifice for the greater good
Governments hold substantial power. Throughout the movie, the government attempts to utilize this power to supress unwanted information. However the film maker shows us that certain individuals put their personal safety and job security at risk for the greater good while still attempting to protect themselves from harsh consequences.
Burnstein and Woodward spend considerable time investigating sources. While searching for sources, many people refuse to speak to them out of fear. Many doors are slammed in their faces. However all the individuals interviewed choose to give them limited information.
The first milestone in their investigation occurs when “deep throat” gives Woodward vital information to “follow the money”. It is worthy to note that he refuses to give up more information at that time. Throughout the film, Woodward returns to “deep throat” and each time is given small amounts of information to point him in the right direction.
The bookkeeper is also quite hesitant to give up information fearing for her job when the journalists pester her repeatedly, but eventually provides critical facts such as the initials of the people who participe the re-elect Nixon slush fund. Hugh Sloan has already lost his job and provides key information off the record proving that he fears for his life. Burnstein and Woodward are not deterred from pursuing their story even when they become aware that their own lives are in danger and that their apartments have been bugged. Woodward types a message to Burnstein after he turns up the classical music in Burnstein’s apartment “Deep throat says our lives may be in danger … SURVEILLANCE BUGGING”.
The film maker depicts the element of fear and tension through the mise en scène with either dark ominous lighting (deep throat conversations in parking garage), tense expressions, closing of curtains to remain hidden (bookkeeper) or raising the volume of the music to muffle the conversation (Burnstein and Woodward).
The film maker explores different dimensions of social class. People of higher social class have substantially more power and immunity in the application of the law. This is true of people who are affluent and of people who hold power in government and the private sector. It seems that the higher one ranks in social class, the stronger this effect of immunity becomes.
At the end of the film, the television shows the re-elect ceremony of President Nixon with patriotic American music playing, while Burnstein and Woodward are in the background finalizing the story linking Nixon and his affiliates to the Watergate scandal. The juxtaposition of the scenes are particularly effective.The scene then cuts to a type writer printing the events that follow the release of the story. The typewriter prints all of the names of the people involved and their subsequent charges. Diegetic sounds of gunshots are heard in the background from the presidential ceremony on the TV each time a new name is mentioned. The effect created in the film by the gunshots and punching of the keys really drives the point that justice has been served. The typewriter then prints a few of the names of the people sentenced to jail. Based on the time given it is quite noticeable that most of the people sentenced were given minimal jail time due to their political rank, given the laws that they broke.
The typewriter then prints that footage was found of Richard Nixon approving the cover up of Watergate and that he will not resign as president. The fact that he states that he will not resign even in light of the evidence shows that he is aware of his power as president and that he feels immune to the law because of his position. Three days later he resigns from office because of the mounting pressure from the public and almost certain impeachment. It is well known that after he resigns, the new president Gerald Ford pardons him of all his crimes. It is worthy to note that only the president of the United States would be acquitted of crimes such as these and that any regular citizen would serve a long sentence in jail.
In addition to exploring differential application of the law, the film maker also reflects the reality of the time with regard to gender and race. People of color in positions of power are almost completely absent in the movie. Women are also regarded as submissive and are objectified. The only women who seems to be in a position of power is Sally Aikens, a female reporter, who is able to obtain key information from a spokes-person for the US president. The source of her power is only her personal sexual relationship with the spokes-person.
The above analysis should be viewed in the context of the time it was filmed and the cinematographic style of that era. While screening this film, it was apparent that the tempo and style of the movie is dated. The pace of this movie feels very slow and plodding. This contrasts with personal experience of more modern Hollywood movies which are easy to watch, action packed and follow a more cliché story line. For example, the movie concentrates on complex detail with minimal action and an abrupt ending showing very little of the aftermath. This film is very demanding of the viewer and requires a lot of focus and concentration to understand and follow. This is partly due to the lack of technology at the time to accelerate the investigation. It was very surprising to see the journalists searching phone books to find numbers. Today these tasks would be accomplished almost instantly.
The other marked difference is that today the journalists may have been perceived as traitors by the public at large. A current day example is that of Edward Snowden who also revealed government wrong doing regarding obtaining personal information by spying. Edward was largely perceived as a traitor and was forced to flee the country. Both examples involve the political control of government information.
Overall the screening of this film was both instructive and enjoyable. It afforded an opportunity to gain a better understanding of the political and social views as well as the depiction of political content and intent in film during the 1970’s.
Haas, E., Christensen, T., & Haas, P. J. (2015). Projecting politics: Political messages in American films [Second Edition].
Pakula, A. J. (Director), & Bernstein, C., & Woodward, B. (Writers). (9 April 1976).All the President's Men [Motion picture on DVD]. United Sates: Warner Bros.