Many of those who didn’t live through the Watergate scandal, which began in 1972, take their knowledge of the event from All the President’s Men (1976), so it’s fortunate that the story stays very close to the truth. Robert Redford and director Alan J. Pakula worked hard to ensure the film’s veracity, and attended hours of meetings at The Washington Post, the main setting of the story, to learn how a newsroom operates.
The use of real television news footage featuring the perpetrators of the shameful episode helps to bolster the film’s credibility, but it’s more than just a run through of real-life events. It’s presented as a taut political thriller that, like the recent Snowden, is gripping to watch even though the ending is already known.
Redford and Dustin Hoffman play journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, who discover a link between the men caught trying to bug the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate Complex and president Richard Nixon, a Republican. Because of their reporting, Nixon was eventually forced to resign.
The film is based on Woodward and Bernstein’s book of the same name, but the transition from page to screen is more interesting than usual. Redford, long known for his political views, wanted to make a film about Watergate, but felt he needed a book to base it on. He persuaded Woodward and Bernstein to write one about their work by promising to buy the film rights, and he also advised them to make it a story about their investigation rather than a dry historical work.
Top Hollywood screenwriter William Goldman based the script on their book, but Bernstein was unhappy with it, and wrote his own version with his screenwriter girlfriend, Nora Ephron. Goldman’s version is the one that was finally used. Woodward reportedly approved of the finished film, but Bernstein didn’t.
The film title is a reference to the nursery rhyme Humpty Dumpty (“All the king’s horses and all the king’s men/couldn’t put Humpty together again”). All the President’s Men serves its purpose as a historical document well, but it also highlights the role of the press as watchdogs, noting how those in power will usually work together to keep the truth from the people they are supposed to serve.
Its message is not submerged – enrolment in journalism classes in the US reportedly increased after the film was released. Redford and Hoffman are so consumed by their roles it’s easy to think that it was the actors who brought down Nixon, not Woodward and Bernstein.
All the President’s Men will be screened on November 13 at The Grand Cinema, in West Kowloon, and on November 27 at Festival Grand Cinema, in Kowloon Tong, as part of the Cine Fan programme.