'All the President’s Men' — Watergate Comes to the Big Screen - OZY | A Modern Media Company
Scene from All the President's Men


What do you call a dialogue-laden political thriller with virtually no onscreen villains and an outcome that everyone already knows? Riveting.

By Sean Braswell

Washington Post journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein certainly put the “intrepid” into intrepid reporting with their investigation of the Watergate break-in four decades ago. Perhaps just as challenging as taking down a president and unraveling a labyrinthine conspiracy, however, is trying to transform such a Byzantine operation into a compelling feature-length film.

 All the President’s Men couldn’t possibly hold all the president’s men and hold movie audiences’ attention.

All the President’s Men (1976), written by William Goldman, directed by Alan Pakula, and starring Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, masterfully pulled off that remarkable feat, and today, as we mark the 40th anniversary of President Richard Nixon’s resignation, the award-winning film remains inextricably linked in the public imagination to the Watergate investigation that it depicts.

Based on the 336-page book of the same name by Woodward and Bernstein, All the President’s Men couldn’t possibly hold all the president’s men and hold movie audiences’ attention at the same time. With more than 40 members of Nixon’s administration implicated in the scandal, not to mention a gaggle of Post reporters and editors besides the dynamic “Woodstein” duo, it was obvious that any film treatment would have to simplify events.


The script by screenwriting legend Goldman, author of such classics as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Princess Bride, contains — as the Post pointed out later — numerous “factual deficiencies,” and “small events are rearranged, names changed, characters combined or fictionalized.” But by distilling the machinations of conspiracy into a palatable slate of characters, providing as close to an accurate depiction of a working newsroom as any film has produced, and focusing the story through the eyes of the two cub reporters unraveling the biggest story of their careers — and perhaps in the nation’s political history — Goldman nailed what is arguably one of the most challenging screen adaptations ever.

And even the Post itself, despite some initial misgivings, came around to hail the film it later referred to as “journalism’s finest 2 hours and 16 minutes,” endorsing Goldman’s Academy Award-winning screenplay as a “supreme triumph” in “the way it slices through that kelp bed of interlocking relationships and, quite literally, cuts to the chase.”

Nothing’s riding on this except the First Amendment of the Constitution, freedom of the press and maybe the future of the country.

— Ben Bradlee, played by Jason Robards

The key to making the narrative work — originally suggested by Redford to Woodward and Bernstein as they co-wrote their book (and he eyed the movie rights) — was to focus on the reporters’ investigation itself and not Nixon’s campaign “plumbers.” 

How well Goldman’s script lived up to Redford’s vision in the film remains contested. Redford told one biographer that he helped rewrite about 90 percent of Goldman’s screenplay in a last-minute attempt to avert disaster.  But the trail of evidence and, rather fittingly, journalistic investigation suggests that the screenplay was indeed Goldman’s labor of love from beginning to end.

The film’s closing sequence (below), both powerful and unconventional, bears witness to Goldman’s mastery. First you get the beautifully sardonic and climactic line from the Post’s executive editor, Ben Bradlee, played by Jason Robards, to Woodward and Bernstein: “Nothing’s riding on this except the First Amendment of the Constitution, freedom of the press and maybe the future of the country.”

Then Goldman turns a seemingly insurmountable narrative obstacle — what to do when you are more than two hours into a film that has not yet touched the powerful denouement, the fall of a president — into a sweeping but understated finale.

Against the backdrop of television coverage of Nixon’s second inauguration in 1972, we see Woodward and Bernstein typing away in the Post’s bustling newsroom — actually a studio copy in Burbank, Calif., with authentic Post papers and trash flown in from D.C. Then in true news fashion, the guilty verdicts are spelled out by the Teletype, and in one of the most dramatic — perhaps only — type-written epilogues in film history, the final report is rendered:

August 9, 1974 – Washington. Nixon Resigns. Gerald Ford to Become 38th President at Noon Today.

The rest is silence, and history. Roll credits.

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