I’ve been watching All the President’s Men lately and trying to come up with a theory for it. I want to say that twin events, All the President’s Men and the election of Jimmy Carter, stand as the final two-pronged assault of America’s political counterculture.
Which is to say that they were the parting shots of (and monuments to) the whole countercultural movement, just before its unilateral surrender to the forces of music videos and product research.
They were big events for 1976, which—let’s face it—was the year most of us were born. But of these two bicentennial landmarks, I want to say that ATPM has proven to have the lasting positive influence. Nobel Prizes notwithstanding.
I’m talking only about the movie, not Watergate itself, and certainly not Woodward and Bernstein’s reconstruction, All the President’s Men the book (which I do have plans to read now in the near future). The power and influence of this movie comes from its lionization of the reporter as one of those archetypal countercultural figures typical of ’70s Hollywood golden age, a contemporary Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, or a mildly employable Easy Rider.
At every step, Woodward and Bernstein depended on the support and protection of Ben Bradlee (Jason Robards) and Katherine Graham (offscreen), but in ATPM the movie Woodward and Bernstein work outside the system. Their characters are painted with mildly rebellious and youthful gestures. Woodward sleeps through important meetings. Bernstein is good with the ladies. They went to see Deep Throat. Woodward says to Bernstein, apropos of his cool habit: “Is there any place you don’t smoke?”
Most important, they want the story establishment journalists don’t. And they have nothing to lose, because neither has any traction within the journalistic-political system.
Clark MacGregor: I don’t know. You’re implying that I should know. If you print that, our relationship will be terminated.
Woodward: Sir, we don’t have a relationship!
The WB are journalism as challenge to authority. At the Library of Congress, the suit gatekeeper denies them access to the White House research records.
“We need a sympathetic face.”
“We’re not going to find one here.”
Cut to the young man in the afro. “I’m not sure you want them, but I’ve got them.” Right On! These journalists are With It.
As W and B flip through the library cards, the camera pulls upward, expanding into a full-on Gursky shot of Library of Congress users, just going through the motions of the human machine.
The human machine is everywhere in this movie. It is a film of our human patterns. The library of congress, the sea of cubicles in the Post offices, the traffic and city streets, even the fabulously distracting criss-cross patterns in Donald Segretti’s deck chairs.
The journalist frits about within the grids of the vast late Modernist system of Washington DC. (Contrast that order with the chaos of Woodward’s apartment.) The power WB have in the grid is to sort through the data and make connections, to move up the flow chart, to follow the money. They’re not uncovering information—that implies it’s hidden—they’re sorting through too much information. Who’s Colson? Who’s Dahlberg? Who’s Mitchell? Who can keep track? We’re watching Woodward and Bernstein googling.
ATPM has a behind the scenes stature that is almost Iliad-big. It is, on the one hand, the movie that launched a thousand journalism careers, turning on the minds of idealistic young reporters. But it is also an ur-text for screenwriters, having been penned by screenwriter magus William Goldman of Adventures in the Screen Trade fame.
Which is to say, it has had an equal influence on the working methods of both the primary American generators of fact and the primary American generators of fiction.
The movie elevates Nixon-Watergate into myth, and not just any myth, but epic. Smoothing out the factual kinks into the mythic narrative of the film doesn’t replace the historical fact, it makes the historical fact obsolete. Even Woodward forgot that Deep Throat never said the words Goldman wrote for him in the screenplay, “Follow the Money.” At a radio producer’s request, he searched in vain through his own book to find the nonexistent quote. “Follow the money” is the narrative thread in ATPM, it provides the heroes with a path for their quest. It never happened, but it gives us a truth in the story to hold on to.
The real-life sequels to the movie’s historical actors marks the death (or the fiction) of the counterculture since the mid-70s. Bob “Sir, we don’t have a relationship” Woodward is today’s figurehead for access. His Bush at War trilogy was just about written in the White House, and Woodward’s loyalty to his sources over his employer the Post in the Plame case reveals an alliance with the powers at odds with Redford’s portrayal.
Mark Felt’s coming out as Deep Throat played as fluff entertainment, timed for a book deal—his due—and as his role in Watergate had been so thoroughly mythologized, it was received like the surprise reveal of some fictional character’s secret identity. The solution to a good mystery.
More ominous are the continuing activities of ATPM’s enemies, the actions of the government against the press and their political opponents. For all of Segretti’s nickel-and-dime stuff, for his rat fucking, he went to prison. Fake Muskie stationary was an outrage, but today the same tactics upset only the most sensitive partisan victims. Karl Rove’s apprenticeship was learning Nixon’s dirty tricks, but now it’s just playing politics.
Last month the Supreme Court denied privilege to New York Times journalists in the case of a terrorist finance leak, and that’s just one front in the anti-journalist attack. The subpoenas in the first case were issued by Patrick Fitzgerald, who hasn’t stopped his crusade against journalists since the higher profile Plame case jailings. Judith Miller’s insider actions removed some of the countercultural aura from reporting on the government, and that has created an opening for stopping the next Woodwards and Bernsteins from doing the reporting that keeps government in check. The case against journalistic privilege goes on, but now it has moved off the front page. Like with Mark Felt, when reporters lose their ability to uncover government secrets for good, it may hit us as spectacle, rather than news.