When Carl Berstein and Bob Woodward set out to investigate the Watergate burglary, they had not a clue what they were about to uncover. In Alan J. Pakula’s film, he and writer William Goldman adapted the reporters’ groundbreaking book of their remarkable journey, which began with a few phone calls and simple questions, and culminated with the resignation of the President of the United States. It is important to note that ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN should not be judged on its coverage of what went on at the White House within the Nixon administration during those astonishing, sometimes harrowing months. The film is an explicit account of the revelations by the Washington Post during that time—how they discovered what they did, and what they presented to the world. And for that, it’s a gripping tale laced with integrity and devotion to the truth.
A meticulous study of the source material reveals that Pakula, Goldman, and company took the reporters’ work seriously, often lifting direct bits of dialogue and sequences from their book for the film. The early rivalry between Bernstein and Woodward, the librarian contradicting herself, the long take with Kenneth Dahlberg on the phone, and the anonymous bookkeeper’s spilling of the initials that would become names, all transitioned from page to screen. The film usually interjects the real names, the proper chronology of events, and even garnishes certain scenes with news footage from 1972—just as the reporters recalled watching them. Bernstein’s trip to Miami in order to obtain one of the burglar’s bank records from Martin Dardis, his interaction with attorney Donald Segretti, and the clever 10-count code with an anonymous lawyer that named Bob Haldeman as the fifth man controlling the secret fund, was all documented in the book.
Woodward is depicted as the more conservative of the two (he was), only nine months in to his Post tenure, but with a contact that would prove vital in breaking the story no one saw coming. Deep Throat (revealed in 2005 to have been W. Mark Felt, the Associate Director of the FBI), circles a page in Woodward’s New York Times when he wants a meeting. Woodward places a red flag in a potted plant out on his apartment balcony when he wants information. This is just how Woodward claimed the events occurred, though he still has no idea how Felt was able to see his balcony.
In a 2006 Associated Press interview, Robert Redford reflected on his experiences prepping for and shooting the film. He and Dustin Hoffman spent several weeks in the news office with Post reporters for research purposes. “Accuracy was the big, big objective in making the film,” Redford says. “We had to be accurate, otherwise we would fall under that perception that Hollywood was messing around with a very vital event.”
For the lay viewer, however, the investigation can become too convoluted to follow. Younger generations without a proper knowledge of the names they hear will likely have difficulty interpreting the context in which they’re hearing them. Power players like John Mitchell, Bob Haldeman, and Chuck Colson get lost in an onslaught of names and disembodied voices over the telephone. Berstein and Woodward provide great detail in their book to the roles of each of these men, but the film doesn’t give the viewer time to catch up with who’s who and what each person did exactly.
Roger Ebert touches on this point, while also praising the film for its plausibility:
ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN is truer to the craft of journalism than to the art of storytelling, and that's its problem. The movie is as accurate about the processes used by investigative reporters as we have any right to expect, and yet process finally overwhelms narrative -- we're adrift in a sea of names, dates, telephone numbers, coincidences, lucky breaks, false leads, dogged footwork, denials, evasions, and sometimes even the truth…When Robert Redford announced that he'd bought the rights to ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN the joke in the newsroom was about reporters becoming movie stars. What in fact has happened is that the stars, Redford as Woodward and Dustin Hoffman as Bernstein, became reporters: They sink into their characters and become wholly credible. There's not a false or "Hollywood" note in the whole movie, and that's commendable -- but how much authenticity will viewers settle for? To what secret and sneaky degree do they really want Redford and Hoffman to come on like stars?
As it turns out, they settled for a lot. The film grossed more than $70 million domestically, then grabbed eight Oscar nominations, winning four, including a best supporting actor award for Jason Robards. Bob Woodward would later say that Robards nailed the performance as Benjamin Bradlee, which was even more astounding considering Robards and Bradlee had never even met.
As good an adaptation as it was, the film didn’t capture everything the book did, sometimes for good reason. Deep Throat is imagined as a shadowy figure lurking in a parking garage in the darkest parts of the night. His cryptic instructions would become classic pieces of movie lingo and the character himself was the inspiration for the Cigarette Smoking Man on “The X-Files.” But Woodward’s description of him isn’t quite so sinister. He writes of his friendship with Deep Throat as genuine, even before Watergate. The two actually talked for hours one night in that garage, sitting against the wall until six in the morning. “Aware of his own weaknesses, he readily conceded his flaws,” Woodward says. “He was, incongruously, an incurable gossip, careful to label rumor what it was, but fascinated by it…He was not good at concealing his feelings, hardly ideal for a man in his position.” This isn’t exactly the picture Hal Holbook conveys, but it’s effective nonetheless, and works better dramatized this way.
But there were curious choices made as well. The film operates not like a movie, but rather, like the true life of a journalist. It’s the down times, the tedious times, gathering information that ultimately doesn’t aid in the big picture. Where the book opts to use Nixon’s name early on in the investigation and provide the state of the administration as the Post began cracking the scandal, the film largely ignores the President—no reaction from him on what the Post was turning up. Also absent is the magnitude of what was happening in the newsroom. It can be deduced from sidelong reactions and dialogues implicating the President himself, but this was certainly on the minds of Bernstein, Woodward, and Bradlee. In their book, after Woodward types up his finding that a $25,000 check from CRP (Committee to Re-elect the President) was deposited into the bank account of one of the burglars, editor Barry Sussman is stunned. “The last page copy was passed to Sussman just at the deadline,” Bernstein and Woodward write. “Sussman set his pen and pipe down on his desk and turned to Woodward. ‘We’ve never had a story like this,’ he said. ‘Just never.’ ” It’s those kinds of movie moments that the film eludes, oddly enough. And that isn’t all.
In 1992, Washington Post reporter Ken Ringle provided his own review of the film from an historian’s perspective (he had a front row seat), and in so doing, praised the efforts of Bernstein and Woodward in composing their account. Ringle understands how Hollywood works, but did take issue with what he called a “trivialized almost to idiocy” take on managing editor Howard Simons, played by Martin Balsam. Simons was, as Ringle insists, the senior editor most involved in tracking the scandal’s daily progress. He notes Bernstein and Woodward working alone in an empty newsroom as the “most gratuitous visual inaccuracy,” but was impressed by the tens of thousands of dollars spent by the production to recreate the Washington Post newsroom, including authentic filing cabinet labels and trash from the Post to adorn the desks with clutter. Ringle acknowledges that some smaller events were rearranged, names were changed, and characters were fictionalized or at least combined on occasion. But there was something more alarming to Ringle.
The factual deficiencies of ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN are all too obvious to people obsessed with details, as journalists tend to be. The most grievous example is the dramatic absence of City Editor Barry Sussman, who played a vital role in helping reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein piece their discoveries into a meaningful pattern but was entirely written out of the film, just as if he never existed.
Ringle admits that the film over-glamorizes reporting, exaggerates some dialogue, and alters a few facts here and there, but in the end it “remains the best film ever made about the craft of journalism and an eerily accurate evocation of the mood and psychology—if not the details—of that Byzantine presidential deceit and its unmasking.” In an age of flamboyant overproducing, Pakula’s film still feels just as the Washington Post’s 1972-73 odyssey actually was: impossibly real.
“The number that Robert Redford dials on the telephone is the White Houses' real switchboard number.”