AFI #77: All the President’s Men

I was 10 year’s old when All the President’s Men came out and I remember going to see it with my family at the Campus Drive-in on El Cajon Blvd. in San Diego. I know it may be hard to believe, but the film had a major impact on me even at that young age. I knew then I wanted to be a journalist. Over 30 years have gone by and I’ve probably seen the film a dozen times or so, and each time I am glued to the action as if I had no idea of the outcome. Watching it yesterday was no different — it is undoubtedly one of my all-time favorite movies. But as a bonus, this time Connor watched it with me and he loved it! How cool is that?

It seems to me that Watergate marked a critical turning point in American politics. I’m sure we knew politics wasn’t all pretty, but when the events of the break-in and cover up came to light in such a public way America lost its innocence about just how corrupt government can be. If you look back at the record, Nixon wasn’t such a bad president — he was just a bad person. In the nearly 40 years since Watergate we have come to expect that politics is a dirty game played by people who most likely don’t have our country’s best interests in mind. Reagan began to divide us along ideological terms, Bush continued his legacy, Clinton created  a mockery of the office with his sexual exploits, Bush Jr. used the office to advance his personal agendas and now a weak and vision-less Obama presides over a fully corrupt government that can’t even agree on what to disagree on. At least during Watergate Americans pretty much agreed on the fact that Nixon was a crook. But looking back the frat boy antics of Watergate seem like child’s play compared to going to war without cause, purposely dividing the nation along class and moral boundaries and bailing out special interests. Should we long for the days of Watergate?

All the President’s Men is wonderful because it’s a great detective film, with Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein as Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe. And of course it’s even more compelling because it is based on fact rather than fiction. It features great acting and powerful moments of realization. It also features some very cool directing by Alan Pakula, especially in the way he weaves in real footage. I love, for example, the scene where Woodward and Bernstein are working alone in the newsroom while the rest of the staff are gathered around the TVs watching Nixon being sworn in for a second term. The Nixon swearing-in is real footage which makes the scene feel even more real. Pakula does this several times during the film and it’s very unique. And of course the film is chock full of great performances by Robert Redford, Dustin Hoffman, Jack Warden, Hal Holbrook and more. Interestingly only Jason Robards, for his portrayal of Ben Bradlee,  won the Oscar. In fact, All the President’s Men didn’t win for Best Picture. It was nominated along with Rocky, Network, Taxi Driver and Bound for Glory. That’s a hell of a year for film — Rocky won by the way!

All the President’s Men made journalism seem important and romantic. It was a noble calling. I remember reading David Halbertam’s The Powers that Be in college and thinking being a journalist was one of the most important jobs in the country. How many of us feel that way today? Journalism itself has fallen victim to the times of division. We either watch Fox or MSNBC. We believe the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal, but not both. Local news has become nothing more than the crime report and a vehicle for advertisements. The Internet has given us the ability to read more news than ever, but none of it has any teeth — the lie of “balance” has given way to articles with no heart and mind. The Fourth Estate has become just another tool for the corporatocracy.

Regardless of how you feel about journalism, All the President’s Men surely harkens back to a different time. It’s a great film and an important film. And just like then, today if you want to know who is in charge of things all you have to do is what Deep Throat said to Bob Woodward — follow the money!

Next Up: Forrest Gump

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