There have been many great duos in the last half of the 20th century. Cinema has DeNiro and Scorsese. Magicians have Siegfried and Roy. Film critics had Siskel and Ebert. For journalists, there is no greater duo than Woodward and Bernstein, the men who uncovered the Watergate scandal, bringing the eventual downfall of American president Richard Nixon. The scandal happened in 1972 and in 1976 Alan J. Pakula brought the story to the big screen with Robert Redford as Woodward and Dustin Hoffman as Bernstein in All the President’s Men.
In the film’s special features a talking head says he believes All the President’s Men should be shown in journalism schools. How appropriate then that while I was watching this I was at Sheridan College in Oakville, Ontario, as part of the college’s Journalism – New Media program. As my classmates and I watched Woodward and Bernstein at work we could not help but notice how the media has changed since the days of Watergate. Today if a scandal erupts it is tweeted, blogged about, discussed on a 24-hour news channel, or released unfiltered on Wikileaks. Yet the principles of good journalism are the same, whether today’s journalists are willing to follow them or not. Good research and reliable sources can break a story and even break an administration.
As the movie shows, the story begins with a small incident that later has huge repercussions. In June 1972 a security guard interrupted a break-in at the Watergate hotel in Washington D.C. The police arrest five men, who were caught in the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee. A seemingly minor crime, until Bob Woodward of The Washington Post learns the five men had bugging equipment, an expensive lawyer defending them, and they have ties to the Central Intelligence Agency. Further digging reveals a possible link to the White House.
Reluctantly, Woodward partners with Carl Bernstein. Despite working in the same paper and on the same story the two are from different background. Bernstein is a Jewish man who leans more to the left, whereas Woodward is a Christian and to Bernstein’s surprise, a Republican. Yet both of them are after the facts no matter what they might reveal and end up making a great team. Their good work begins to implicate a scandal coming from the Nixon administration, and so their editor Ben Bradlee (Jason Robards) encourages them to gather more information before he aggress to go to print with what they have.
And so they go forth digging for facts, talking to reluctant witnesses who more often than not slam their door on their faces, making phone calls that may turn out to be nothing or might turn out to reveal an important clue, and digging through financial records. In a brilliant scene we see Woodward and Bernstein sitting at a table going through bills. The camera zooms out from above showing them in a huge hall of records. Woodward’s shortcut through all the facts is Deep Throat (Hal Holbrook) his anonymous source within the government who has a penchant for meeting in a parking lot at night while hiding in the shadows. His fateful advice: follow the money.
Despite sources recanting publicly and the White House denying everything, Woodward and Bernstein eventually connect the Watergate burglars to thousands of dollars in diverted campaign funds to Nixon’s Committee to Re-Elect the President (or CREEP). They follow the money to the Attorney General, and learn the funds were used to sabotage Democratic presidential candidates when Nixon was behind in the polls. The more they uncover, the more the heat turns up until Deep Throat warns them their lives might be in danger. Their editor meanwhile does what a good editor should do and gives them a scolding when a witness publicly says Bernstein misquoted him. This is the kind of mistake that puts an editor’s career on the line.
Of course anyone who has read a book on American history knows how this story ends, but like all movies based on famous historical events All the President’s Men is worth watching for its accurate depiction of that event. The offices of The Washington Post are shown buzzing with reporters busy writing on their typewriters, making phone calls on rotary phones, and smoking cigarettes in their spare time. When they are out in the field we see Woodward and Bernstein expertly obtaining information from witnesses, such as when Bernstein gradually invites himself a woman’s home by asking for a cup of coffee and then writing down everything she say claiming he has a terrible memory.
Culturally speaking the influence of both the real events and the movie is undeniable. Every subsequent political scandal following the demise of Nixon’s career would include the suffix “Gate” (Plamegate, Whitewatergate and the more salacious Weinergate). The shadowy Deep Throat would become the archetypal secret government source, inspiring a few characters on The X-Files. Then of course there are Woodward and Bernstein themselves who would inspire a generation of young students to become investigative journalists.
Decades later their story would be shown to a new generation of students by teachers hoping they would learn the value of good research.