All The President’s Men (Director: Alan J. Pakula): I was seven years old when the Watergate scandal broke in 1972, and I learned about it mostly from reading Mad magazine, believe it or not. Still, 35 years later, I’m not exactly sure exactly what happened, and I seriously believe that nobody under 50 even cares. But what Watergate showed us is that the abuse of power in a democracy is not new, but that stupid and evil people sometimes don’t get away with their crimes. That is, if the media is doing its job.
All The President’s Men was originally a book published by the two men responsible for breaking the story, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, both reporters for the Washington Post at the time of the scandal. Pakula’s film teamed up two of the era’s hottest actors, Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford, and attempted to dramatize the story of perhaps the biggest political scandal of the 20th century. But though the film scooped four Oscars (including an adapted screenplay Oscar for writer William Goldman), I don’t think it’s aged well.
Audiences approaching the film today with little background knowledge will come away baffled, since the story moves along at breakneck pace, with names being tossed out with no context. The filmmakers may have assumed that in 1976, people would still be familiar with the story, since it occupied the newspapers for months on end. But without that background, it can seem pretty opaque. As well, we learn next to nothing about any of the characters, most notably our intrepid journalists. Worst of all, despite a running time well over two hours, the conclusion of the film is remarkably weak. A final roadblock seems to be wrapped up hastily and the ending disappoints with nothing but a teletype machine informing us of several indictments. There’s not even any archival footage of Nixon talking about the scandal, nor of his resignation.
Despite its obvious weaknesses, I still feel this is an important film, because it inspires the belief that journalism’s function is to empower democracy by speaking the truth to power. It’s outrageous that increasing corporate ownership and consolidation of the media landscape has left our democracy weaker and less accountable. My only wish would be for someone to make a strong documentary about Watergate to educate a younger generation. Maybe they could even recycle some of Mad‘s satirical Watergate songs.