Here's the thing: because All The President's Men is based on cold, hard reality, there aren't any symbols in this film that didn't exist in the cold, hard, disco-infused 1970's. That's not to say that symbolism doesn't exist in the real world—some of our favorite literary symbols are grounded in what actually happened.
There really are white whales. Puritans really did punish adulterers by making them wear letters. And we know that caged birds actually do sing…although we need a little help with why they sing.
And there are a few recurring images that give All The President's Men a strong narrative cohesion. The first is telephones.
In today's era of Snapchat and WhatsApp using a landline, complete with curly phone cord, is downright archaic. But it's the way people had to communicate in the 70's, and it emphasizes a general lack of communication. People don't want to talk to Woodward and Bernstein anyway. The phone gives them yet another option to not talk. They can slam doors in their faces, and they can hang up on them.
But what could be more boring than watching someone talk on the phone? All the President's Men manages to make this act interesting. Alex Woo, a blogger and story artist at Pixar, has some awesome analysis focusing on critical scene involving a dual-focus lens and Woodward on the phone with a source. (Source)
The camera pans in, showing us Woodward's laser-sharp focus on his job. And he's often the only person on the phone in many of his scenes—you can see phones going unused in the background. This illustrates that Woodward is determined where many of his colleagues are not. Today, texting on the job is a big problem. But in Woodward's day, a man could actually get ahead by being on the phone 24/7.
Even though there isn't a disco ball in sight, all of the motifs in All the President's Men root it firmly in its time of the 1970's. Cigarette smoking isn't nearly as prevalent today as it was in the 70's, when people smoked not just in the workplace, but also in the elevator to the office.
If you travel back in time to the 1970's, bring a gas mask.
Two major characters smoke like Katniss Everdeen's fire dress. One is Deep Throat, who smoke so much, he inspired the famous Cigarette Smoking Man character from The X-Files. His smoking creates a pretty sinister air: he's cloaked not just in darkness, but also in smoke.
The other person sure to come down with a nasty cough is Bernstein. Woodward, who doesn't appear to smoke, even comments on how Bernstein smokes everywhere, even in the office elevator.
Bernstein's smoking isn't done to make him villainous, like Deep Throat. It's more used as comic relief, and to give us more contrast between Woodward and Bernstein, like Oscar and Felix from The Odd Couple. They're an odd couple, indeed.
Your school notebooks are probably filled with all sorts of doodles. If you want to be a serious journalist, though, you need to learn to take notes without drawing Adventure Time characters in the margins…assuming you take actual notes with an actual pen on actual paper, of course.
In the 70's, pen and paper was the only option for taking notes. But as Woodward and Bernstein show us, paper can take the form of napkins, the backs of receipts, or coasters. Basically any flat surface that was shaved off a tree is fair game. The men had to keep track of every piece of paperwork and every note they took to verify their stories. The most memorable scene involving note paper (that's a phrase you don't hear every day) shows Bernstein dumping out scraps from his pockets after scrambling to write notes on everything Sloan's bookkeeper says.
Paper's also important off-screen. The reporters have to investigate the shredding of important documents at the CREEP office. To today's paperless society this might seem archaic, but that was the way it was done back in the dark, paper-saturated ages of the 1970's.
Ever notice that every blockbuster movie has the same fundamental pieces? A hero, a journey, some conflicts to muck it all up, a reward, and the hero returning home and everybody applauding his or her swag? Yeah, scholar Joseph Campbell noticed first—in 1949. He wrote The Hero with a Thousand Faces, in which he outlined the 17 stages of a mythological hero's journey.
About half a century later, Christopher Vogler condensed those stages down to 12 in an attempt to show Hollywood how every story ever written should—and, uh, does—follow Campbell's pattern. We're working with those 12 stages, so take a look. (P.S. Want more? We have an entire Online Course devoted to the hero's journey.)
We like to think we live in a world where the President of the United States isn't engaging in corruption across every department of the government in order to assure his re-election. That world is shattered as soon as the Watergate hotel is broken into in the film's opening minutes.
Harry Rosenfeld assigns rookie reporter Bob Woodward to go to the courthouse and cover the break-in. They have no idea that this is going to be a national scandal.
Woodward won't consider quitting until much later, when it seems impossible to find any concrete sources for this complicated, shady story. At this point in the film, when the story appears to be much bigger than originally anticipated, it's Howard Simons, managing editor, who wants more experienced reporters on the story.
Ben Bradlee believes in the young reporters Woodward and Bernstein. He encourages them to continue to gather information.
The key tipping point in Woodward's investigation is when Deep Throat, in a shadowy parking garage, tells Woodward to "follow the money." That is when he is sure he is on a trail…if only he could figure out where it leads.
Gathering information is a constant trial for Woodward and Bernstein. The people who want to help are being pressured by the government not to. Lots of doors are slammed in their faces, but they have to keep going.
The inmost cave in this case is the vault of money kept by the Committee to Re-Elect the President, which contained their mysterious slush fund. Woodward and Bernstein know it's important (and that the money isn't used for Slush Puppies), but the deeper they get, the fewer people they can find to talk to them.
Woodward and Bernstein argue, because Bernstein believes his gut feelings, but Woodward wants more concrete information. He almost considers dropping from the story.
Finally, Deep Throat confirms that the Watergate break-in was run by White House Chief of Staff Haldeman. Bingo.
There's one problem: Deep Throat also warns Woodward that lives are in danger. The White House means business, and doesn't mind getting a little red. (As in blood, not communism.) Woodward is back where he started from, with no named sources for his story, but with the added danger of probably being under government surveillance.
Bradlee still believes Woodward and Bernstein, though. He encourages them to keep investigating and keep writing.
In the movie's rapid-fire epilogue, we learn over the wire that the men were right all along. Everyone they suspected is found guilty of cover-up, and Nixon himself eventually resigns.
Up until November 17, 1973, Richard Nixon was known for being that guy who talked about his dog Checkers and the guy who sweated too much on TV. And—oh, yeah—he was also known for being the President of the United States.
But after Nixon uttered his famous "I am not a crook" following the break-in of the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate Hotel, and its subsequent cover-up, he was known as, well, a crook.
Washington D.C. is hot and sticky for most of the year, but it was exceptionally hot and sticky in 1972 and 1973, when what seemed to be a simple break-in quickly escalated into one of the biggest political scandals of all time, ending with Nixon becoming the first U.S. president to resign from his position.
Most of All the President's Men takes place inside the offices of the Washington Post. At the time, it was staffed by celebrated journalists like Ben Bradlee. The film shows us the tense atmosphere in the newsroom, where deadlines are always ten minutes away and the incessant sound of typing fills the air. (How did no one tear their hair out listening to the clacking of typewriter keys all day?)
All the President's Men is more about the politics of a national newspaper newsroom than it is about the government. Executives bicker about what stories should be on the front page. Editors try to pull stories from young reporters and give them to more experienced writers. And reporters scramble for sources. It should be boring, but All the President's Men makes it totally dynamic and interesting.
The Post is now owned by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, so stay tuned for a remake in which Woodward and Bernstein are portrayed by robots. All the President's Drones. (Source)
Nixon would have loved to see Woodward and Bernstein's book shelved in the fiction section, alongside other books of lies like A Million Little Pieces or The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven. (The author's name is Malarkey—of course it's fake.)
But Woodward and Bernstein's story is real, and their investigation into the scandal is as interesting as the scandal itself. As a result, the film mostly follows these two men and their investigation in linear order. Only at the beginning of the film, which depicts the Watergate break-in, do we see a scene that isn't explicitly from their point of view.
Either because Bernstein was more of a jerk in real-life, or because Woodward is played by producer Robert Redford, the movie more closely follows Woodward than Bernstein. Plus, Woodward and Bernstein sounds better than Bernstein and Woodward. Poor Bernstein: always the Garfunkel, never the Simon.
Anyway, Woodward's the first main character we see. He's the first one assigned to the story. He's the one who talks to his shadowy source, Deep Throat. He has doubts about the story's veracity, giving us some internal conflict. Bernstein is more of sidekick, and in fact, is initially shown to be Woodward's rival, if only for a few minutes.
The movie makes a curious choice to stop before Nixon's resignation, instead showing us the news in a quick epilogue. However, Nixon's resignation is a story everyone knows, either from news at the time, from history books, or from the very much fictional film Dick.
Truth may be stranger than fiction, but Hollywood is prettier than real life. So when they tackle the truth, they do it with attractive people. We've seen Elizabeth Montgomery play Lizzie Borden. Michael Sheen as journalist David Frost. And Colin Firth play King George VI.
All the President's Men falls into the docudrama category, documenting a real-life event based on a non-fiction book, but dramatizing it with hot people and a little bit of artistic license. For example, the scene where Bernstein shakes down a cute female assistant never actually happened. But it is included in the movie to develop his character as someone willing to do anything to get a scoop.
But on paper, All the President's Men is more boring than season two of True Detective. It's just reporters calling people, getting hung up, getting the door slammed in their face, yawn, yawn, snore. So it's spiced up a bit, especially near the end, with a bit of thriller. Deep Throat disappears when Woodward's back is turned. A car tears out of a parking garage. Woodward thinks he's being chased. What is this, Scream?
Because the film has a pretty shallow climax – Nixon's resignation occurs in a footnote at the end – it has to jack up the tension somehow. We think every movie would be better with a few more explosions (someone give Bambi a rocket launcher!), but All the President's Men generally keeps it low-key, but tense.
There's a famous nursery rhyme that concludes all the president's horses and all the president's men couldn't make "sock it to me " funny again.
We may not have that exactly right. There are supposed to be eggs in there somewhere, right?
All the President's Men indicates that the corruption surrounding the Watergate break-in involves not one or two of the president's men, not half of them, not seven-eighths of them, but all of 'em. All of the president's men. And once Woodward and Bernstein blow the story open, none of them can put Nixon's reputation together again.
All the President's Men is a backwards movie, like if Harry Potter killed Voldemort in The Sorcerer's Stone and spent six more books attending classes at Hogwarts.
What we mean by this, is that the movie's climax takes place at the very beginning. Most movies would end with a big heist, but the Watergate break-in takes place at the start.From there, the movie warms slowly, finally coming to a boil at the end when Deep Throat finally tells Woodward that Haldeman was behind the break-in. If he had told him that from the start, we wouldn't even have had a movie.
The filmmakers knew this and had to Hollywood things up a bit by adding some dramatic scenes at the end. In one scene an hour and forty-eight minutes into the movie, Woodward suddenly breaks into a run as if Jason Voorhees is chasing him with an axe. There isn't anything behind him, but Woodward thinks there is. The movie adds life-or-death tension by having Deep Throat tell Woodward his life is in danger. We never see the danger, but the seeds of paranoia are sewn.
Oddly, the movie ends right as things are really heating up. We get a dramatic tracking shot of Woodward running through the newsroom with breaking news. We see the Nixon administration—through real footage—condemning Woodward and Bernstein's reporting. Woodward lays his career on the line, saying "If we're wrong, we're resigning." And we see Bradlee defend his reporters, which serves as an emotional climax of sorts. Whew, good thing Benny Boy has their backs.
Bradlee also defends the country, stating his political agenda, and therefore the political agenda of the film, as if it weren't apparent by you watching the first two hours. Despite the negative press, Bradlee urges them to soldier on. He gives them this pep talk:
BRADLEE: "Nothing's riding on this except the First Amendment of the Constitution, freedom of the press, and maybe the future of the country. Not that any of that matters."
Oh, is that all?
In a brief epilogue, we find out through text what happened to all the real-life people in the movie. Pakula and Redford likely end the movie here because there's no suspense involved. Everyone at the time knew that Nixon (a real-life Death Eater if there ever was one) resigned only two years before the film's release. The scandal was fresh in the public's mind. If they wanted that kind of drama they could tune into their local news.
This movie is about the reporters, and their work is never done.
It must have been pretty shocking in the 1970's to discover that the entire presidential administration was jam-packed with corruption. Today, we hardly bat an eyelash when a politician has an affair, embezzles money, or take Borg drones to sleazy sex clubs. (Source)
But aside from a few instances of saucy language, this PG-rated film is tame by modern standards. So is the Washington Post itself:
BRADLEE: This is a family paper.
It's appropriate for almost all ages.