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Drama in the Dull: Journalistic Process and Moral Ambiguity in All the President’s Men

Ryan Wilcox


Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) and Woodward (Robert Redford) tirelessly hover over the typewriter, a weapon that brings down the highest office in the land

Adapted from the bestselling book by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, Alan J. Pakula’s All the President’s Men earned more than $70 million at the box office and was one of the highest-grossing films of 1976. The film was an Oscar powerhouse, nominated both for Best Director and Best Picture, and continues to live on as a largely accurate (though not comprehensive) account of one of the most consequential sagas in U.S. political history: the Watergate scandal and the downfall of the Nixon administration. But it should also live on as one of the most honest depictions of the newspaper business ever put on screen, one that makes that most mundane of jobs — investigative journalism — compelling to mainstream audiences. Further, the film successfully captures the mood of the American seventies; namely, the paranoia of the American seventies, pre- and post-Watergate. Through Pakula’s use of formal elements like mise-en-scène, camera movement, and sound design, plus the magnetic and multifaceted performances of Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, All the President’s Men presents both a rich portrait of the work of investigative journalists and an evocation of a period in U.S. history  — all while presenting a level of moral and narrative ambiguity that was unique to the New Hollywood filmmaking movement of the sixties and seventies.

Perhaps nowhere is the illustration of life as a reporter more fully realized than in a brief, early scene that includes what is likely the most famous shot in the film. Looking to “get something on paper” after a librarian’s suspicious denial of a telephone conversation, Washington Post reporters Woodward (Redford) and Bernstein (Hoffman) set out to the Library of Congress. In the first shot of the scene, the camera pans alongside Woodward and Bernstein as they march to the library entrance, tilting upward at a procession of gray steps and magisterial pillars preceding an arched doorway. All the President’s Men was not the only film of its era that used architecture to suggest a looming corporate and/or bureaucratic presence; both The Conversation (Coppola, 1974) and Pakula’s own Klute (1971) — the latter a part of his so-called “paranoia trilogy” — employed sleek, imposing buildings and sharp-to-the-point-of-intimidation architectural flourishes. Also present in the shot is a line of elementary schoolers walking down the steps of the library — a subtle reference, perhaps, to a next generation of Americans and the people that Woodward and Bernstein are trying to shield from political evil. It’s a theme that’s present in the very title of the film itself, “ostensibly alluding to Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men (and, at an additional remove, ‘Humpty Dumpty’)” and conveying “a sense of great and powerful forces arrayed against its author heroes” (Feeney 9).

Those forces are present in the very next shot of the scene, which sees a white library employee telling Woodward and Bernstein that “All White House transactions are confidential.” The smugness of the well-dressed man’s retort hints at the ever-present obstacles to our heroes’ quest for truth, as well as the mood of the pre-Watergate seventies: institutions rule the day and will not soon be brought down by a fledgling reporter or two. The set design here, too, is no accident: we see a gold-framed painting of an old man next to ornate wallpaper patterns, while the three principals in the shot are mostly shrouded in darkness; it seems that our reporter heroes have hit a dead end, the institution prevailing. Except the pair quickly find the sympathetic face they’re looking for: a Black, bespectacled library employee, someone ostensibly at or near the bottom of the totem pole. It’s a small moment that’s indicative of the kind of work Woodward and Bernstein will do for much of the rest of the film: seeking out the people on the margins — the secretaries, the grunts — and procuring information.

What comes next is perhaps the most celebrated shot in the film: a long, slowly-receding tracking shot showing Woodward and Bernstein sifting through countless records, searching until they’re just one speck in an eerie panopticon of bureaucratic hell. The effect of the shot is twofold, and seemingly contradictory. While the viewer is meant to see “the loneliness of Woodward and Bernstein’s search for the truth,” they might well gather, from the crowd of other researchers surrounding the two reporters, that the pair were “among many pursuing the truth behind Watergate: initially, not many reporters, to be sure, but numerous FBI agents, Justice Department officials, and, later, Senate investigators, members of the Special Prosecutor’s Office, and House Judiciary staffers” (Feeney 9). At some point during the 48-second shot, one also grasps the sheer size of the task the Woodward and Bernstein have taken on (and, indeed, the sheer size of any real work of investigative journalism). As the camera continues tracking backward, the audience stays at the hip of Woodward and Bernstein by virtue of sound perspective — throughout the shot, we still hear the two flipping through papers, with the volume kept at a steady level. Meanwhile, the shot is soundtracked by a slow but triumphant brass score, as if we are on the verge of finding something important, something monumental. As much as any other in the film, this moment displays the virtues of post-classical cinema: emphasizing formal elements over plot-based ones and relying on those elements to fill in gaps in the story.

The Library of Congress is transformed graphically into an eye of surveillance in All the President’s Men

A second, later moment is not as flashy in its use of formal technique but is similarly illustrative of the nature of journalistic work — and of the inner lives of our protagonists. Prior to the scene in question, we see Bernstein interviewing a woman with an almost cunning display of faux-empathy, quietly asking, “Could we just go back for a second?” There is immediately a smash cut to Bernstein, having gotten the scoop he needed, excitedly debriefing Woodward on what he found out; there’s just been a hugely consequential break in the case. The juxtaposition between the two moments, contrasting the reporter in interview mode — understated, contrived sincerity — with the reporter in “I’m about to write the story of my life” mode, is as clear a display of the life of a journalist as exists in cinema.  

From then on, Hoffman is frenetic, his character having consumed more than a few cups of coffee. Redford’s Woodward, meanwhile, looks overwhelmed, trying to decipher his partner’s notes. The film is built entirely around this eccentric relationship, the two reporters arguing, bouncing ideas, interrupting each other, taking turns leading each other down rabbit holes, then being brought back to reality by the other. The Method acting style of Hoffman, especially, is evident throughout the film and in this scene. While classical Hollywood movie making called for enunciation and clarity above all else on the part of the performers, here Hoffman is allowed to jumble his words together, his excitement bubbling over — the counterpoint to his mumbling confusion in the previous scene. Once a new question arises, though — the identity of the case’s initialed “L,” “P” and “M” individuals — Hoffman lights a cigarette and begins pacing across the room, back focused on the investigation. Seconds later, Hoffman tosses Redford a cookie impromptu, a small moment that could in all likelihood have been improvised. Redford responds simply, “I don’t want a cookie”: now, again, to the task at hand.

The scene ends with Woodward and Bernstein cooking up a less-than-virtuous (and less-than-foolproof) way to confirm a name: simply run it by a source and see if they correct you; if they don’t, you’re on the right track. “And what if she denies it?” Bernstein asks. “We’re screwed,” Woodward replies. It’s one of many moments in the film that show us that Woodward and Bernstein are not infallible, and may indeed have ulterior (read: careerist) motives in trying to break the story. (Elsewhere, a coworker spitefully notes that she just must not have “the taste for the jugular” that our protagonists possess.) In the era of classical Hollywood, such moral sophistication would have been frowned upon: good guys are good, bad guys are bad, and that’s that. In the new Hollywood, that gray area has the effect of “validating Woodstein as human beings — rather than stars impersonating white knights — by way of Hoffman’s and Redford’s shrewd behavioralism” (Jameson 10). What’s more, we never are sure if Woodward and Bernstein got actual confirmation of what “P” stood for, or if the “M” signified Magruder. If screenwriter William Goldman sought to tie up every infinitesimal loose end, All the President’s Men might easily have had a four-hour runtime. Better to leave some questions unanswered, he decided — another example of complications that couldn’t have existed in Hollywood films just 10 or 15 years earlier.It’s worth mentioning, before concluding, that Pakula once said he saw the story of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein as “a kind of contemporary myth,” one that affirms “that American belief that a person or small group can with perseverance and hard work and obsessiveness take on a far more powerful, impersonal body and win—if they have truth on their side” (Feeney 11). But myths, in the original sense of the word, were designed to be easily understood, to help explain natural phenomena in a relatively straightforward way. In All the President’s Men, one sees that’s not the case. Plot threads remain hanging, characters operate in gray areas, and happy endings aren’t always readily apparent — just as is the case in real life. This, more than anything, is what makes Pakula’s film timeless while remaining period-specific. By using both formal technique and the performances of his stars, Pakula creates a film that not only exemplifies the life and work of an investigative journalist — and captures the feel of Watergate-era America — but threads in a sort of moral ambiguity that marks it as one of the exemplary works of the New Hollywood era.


Works Cited

Feeney, Mark. Nixon at the Movies: A Book about Belief. University Of Chicago Press, 2004.

Jameson, Richard T. “The Pakula Parallax.” Film Comment, September-October 1976.

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