All the President’s Men (1976): Superb Thriller Starring Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford

The superlative political thriller All the President’s Men, made in 1976, raises many significant questions:

How accurate was All the President’s in its depiction of the Watergate scandal?

How sound or grounded was its political statement?

What are the film’s politics, besides being anti-Republican?

Is the film more of a liberal political gesture than a liberal political statement?

If All the President’s is an idealized Hollywood version of Watergate, then the country’s political climate may have shifted to the left largely due to the delusory effect of presenting Watergate in simplistic black and white terms.  This would constitute sweeping political change based on a sort of false pretense, rather than on heartfelt, intelligent and progressive political change.

Read our review of All the King’s Men

The reporters in the film are certainly not depicted as acting out of political smartness, but out of the desire to work hard and win, much like the Hardy Boys. The political implications that are implicit in the Watergate story are subjugated to, and translated into, a detective narrative, thus losing their original bite. While All the President’s may have won Carter the presidency, the film shies away from real politics, in this way allowing the lessons of Watergate to be forgotten by the time of the 1980 presidential election.

The film’s criticisms are centered on Nixon as a bad guy, along with his bad guy cronies. At the same time, the film fails to find fault with the system that allowed Nixon to commit the crimes that he committed. Actually, All the President’s glorifies the system it pretends to question, suggesting that the system still works, in that it shows us a couple of youthful descendants of Horatio Alger toppling a corrupt government. The film reveals the evil in the system, but then celebrates how the system can still rectify itself.

This is what led the New York Times’ Vincent Canby to call All the President’s Men, “An accurate picture of America at its best.” Could it be that this film is actually a sort of endpoint for 1960s politics, rather than a climax to 1960s liberalism While the film seems to suggest the triumph of 1960s liberalism over a decrepit establishment, All the President’s lends power to the standard system. Woodward and Bernstein are firmly planted in the system and with the system.

The driving force behind the film was actor Robert Redford (who plays Woodward), a noted champion of liberal causes in the 1970’s, who had a personal dislike for Nixon. Redford was, at the time, the number one movie star in the world. His superstar appeal makes the anti-Nixon Watergate sentiments more palatable. Redford’s presence gives the film’s liberal posing an acceptability and attractiveness.

It was Redford who first encouraged the Washington Post reporters Woodward and Bernstein in the direction of writing a narrative account of their experience (which became the book version of All he President’s). When Redford was 13, he had a fateful meeting with Nixon, which formed his impression of him as a foe. Redford won a tennis tournament in Van Nuys, California, his hometown, with Nixon in attendance. Then-Senator Nixon awarded the young Robert Redford the trophy and Redford claims that he thought to himself of Nixon, “What a non-person! This fake human!”

All the President’s did more than just change our perceptions of politicians, as fake or otherwise: the film had an even more profound influence on our image of journalists than on our image of politicians. The film opens with huge typewriter keys, larger than life, pounding away. It’s a visual metaphor for the alluring power of the press. The thrill of reporters fighting corruption (similar to the thrill of cowboys fighting Indians) subsequently imbues All the President’s.

The film showed journalism, as people wanted it to be: epochal and exciting. All the President’s is the Mr. Smith Goes to Washington of journalism. Every attack on the Washington Post in the film was an attack on the foundations of freedom. As a result, about 50,000 students enrolled in Journalism schools after the Woodward and Bernstein story entered popular mythology.

The film made The Washington Post a legend, and the reporters Woodward and Bernstein and editor Bradlee into celebrities. Ben Bradlee stated in retrospect that “the irony of Watergate is that Richard Nixon made us all famous – the people he most despised. He made us mini-household words, and in the case of Woodward and Bernstein, real folk heroes.” All the President’s popularized, and in fact nearly invented, the notion of investigative reporting that we know today, as well.

However, while All the President’s introduced investigative reporting on a wide scale, the public’s general feeling about the press still depended in part upon party affiliation. John C. Pierce’s study, “Party, Ideology and Public Evaluations,” which linked political preference with personal evaluations of the press in 1973, found that nearly half of the study’s subjects felt that television news people were too powerful. Interestingly, Republicans and

Conservatives were more critical than Democrats and Liberals of news people at this point, which is consistent with later trends. In the Elliot and Schenck-Hamlin 1976 study, the conclusion is also similar: Viewing All the President’s made Democrats less critical, more trusting, of the press, and Republicans likewise yet more critical of the press.

Today, Americans have a love for popular culture about political conspiracy. Did All the President’s help to cause this trend, making political conspiracy a viable entertainment If the answer is “Yes,” the implication might be that All the President’s is not much more than “viable entertainment.” It follows then that the political sentiments the film aroused, as proven by the votes Americans cast in the 1976 presidential election, might not have been felt deeply by the American people.

All the President’s opened a virtual Watergate industry of films, books, television programs, etc., about Watergate, whose appeal is something different from political education and something closer to scandalous tidbits.