On this day in history, June 17, 1972, five burglars were arrested inside the National Democratic Headquarters within the plush Watergate office building in Washington DC. No one at that time could foresee that what was being called a bungled “third rate burglary” would, in a little over two years later, lead to the first—and, thus far, only—resignation of a United States President. Today, we revisit the classic 1976 film, All the President's Men, and the legacy of Watergate.
Following the arrests of the five burglars, two young and inexperienced Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein—who had little in common personally and were both under the age of 30—would become strange journalistic bedfellows as they would slowly and methodically untangle a political web of conspiracy and cover-ups, which led to the eventual downfall of President Richard M. Nixon in August of 1974.
What came to be known as the Watergate investigation by the press, followed by the Senate’s Watergate hearings, remains the most famous American political scandal of modern times, and the word itself—Watergate—has come to define political corruption and scandal, with “-gate” being tagged on to endless political stories of various importance over the subsequent 40 years, including “Billygate,” “Nannygate,” “Irangate” and “Troopergate.”
Watergate also led to a slew of phrases becoming part of the country’s lexicon: “smoking gun,” “Saturday Night Massacre,” “dirty tricks,” “hush money,” “black bag job,” “anonymous source,” “deep background,” “Deep Throat,” and the list goes on and on. Ironically, probably the most famous phrase to come out of Watergate, “follow the money,” was a creation of the film, All the President’s Men, showing once again the power of Hollywood over the historical record when it comes to the collective public memory.
The tale of the film began in 1974 when actor/director Robert Redford purchased the rights to Woodward and Bernstein’s best-selling book of the same name which gave the account of their Watergate investigation. Redford saw the film as a way to tell the often convoluted story of how something like the Watergate break-in could ultimately topple an American president.
The biggest hurdle for Redford (who would star as Woodward, opposite Dustin Hoffman as Bernstein), director Alan J. Pakula and screenwriter Albert Goldman was how to make a visually compelling thriller when so much of the Woodward-Bernstein storyline involved less-than-compelling visuals elements like phone calls and door-to-door interviews as the two reporters tried to find sources to help them unravel the mystery. The most compelling of the sources—and the most famous whistleblower of all time—was Woodward’s anonymous source who would become known as “Deep Throat,” so named by Post editor Howard Simons after the controversial 1972 movie of the same name and because the source was on “deep background.”
As with all fact-based films, All the President’s Men had its share of invented scenes and use of artistic license, but with heavy use of shadow and light, director Pakula (who received one of the film’s eight Oscar nominations) and screenwriter Goldman (who received one of the film’s four Oscar wins) effectively kept the suspense growing throughout the film... no easy feat when the audience already knows the ultimate outcome!
All the President's Men would have a profound, if not temporary effect on American society’s feelings about the media in general, especially in the realm of what came to be known as the investigative journalist. Although in the decades since the Watergate revelations, Americans trust in the media has declined sharply, according to Gallup polls taken since that time (down from 70% of Americans who had a great deal or fair amount of trust in the media in the mid-Seventies to roughly 50% today). So, in essence, All the President’s Men serves as a positive time-capsule for the Fourth Estate and remains a riveting piece of drama for movie audiences of any generation.
We end this look back with a peek at the theatrical trailer for All the President's Men...