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Film / All the President's Men

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Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein are about to ask you a few questions.

"Follow the money."
"Deep Throat"

All the President's Men (1976), directed by Alan J. Pakula, follows the discovery and subsequent news coverage of the Watergate scandal by Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) during 1972.

The film—which cracks the AFI "100 Thrills" list at #57—was adapted by William Goldman from the book of the same title, chronicling the investigative reporting of Woodward and Bernstein from their initial reports on the Watergate break-in to the revelation of the Richard Nixon tapes in 1973. The All-Star Cast also includes Jason Robards, Jack Warden, Martin Balsam, Hal Holbrook, Jane Alexander, Stephen Collins, Ned Beatty, and Meredith Baxter.

For those unaware, the story is true.

This movie provides examples of:

  • 20 Minutes into the Past: The film was released in 1976 and covers the early phases of the Watergate Scandal from June 17, 1972 to January 20, 1973, with the epilogue recapping the events leading up to Richard Nixon's resignation on August 9, 1974.
  • Adaptational Attractiveness:
    • Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, who in real life were never as adorably attractive as Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman.
    • Though the trope does not hold true for Hugh Sloan, who was every bit as attractive in reality as the man who played him in the film (Stephen Collins).
  • Adaptation Distillation: The film essentially condenses the investigation to a streamlined narrative, and takes some liberties with narrative devices (for instance, the phrase "follow the money" was invented for the film by Goldman).
  • Adaptation Dye-Job: In real life, Bob Woodward's hair was brown at the time, not blonde like Robert Redford.
  • Adapted Out: Several reporters who assisted Woodward and Bernstein with their investigation are left out of the movie. Notably Barry Sussman, the Post's Washington desk editor who directly oversaw their investigation,note  and Robert Meyers, a freelance "stringer" based in Los Angeles who conducted most of the interviews with Donald Segretti (whom Woodward and Bernstein didn't personally meet until after the election, outside the timeframe of the movie). There was some talk of including Post publisher Katharine Graham as a character, but she didn't make it into the final script either.
  • Affably Evil: Segretti seems like a decent guy when Bernstein goes to interview him. But then you have to realize that he sabotaged Muskie's campaign and mentored the likes of Karl Rove...
  • Amoral Attorney:
    • Segretti. He was college buddies with Chapin at law school.
    • Capped by the then–Attorney General John Mitchell.
    • Averted for the most part by everyone else in the legal profession, who are shown as competent and trying to figure out just what the hell happened with a third-rate burglary.
  • Autobiographical Role: Frank Wills, the security guard shown at the beginning of the film during the attempted break-in, was the actual security guard who notified authorities to the incident in real life.
  • Beware the Honest Ones: Hugh Sloan, who had resigned from the campaign right around the break-in, and pretty much the one decent character in the entire story (even Woodward and Bernstein bend the rules in pursuit of their reporting). He'd love to tell the reporters more about what he knows - actually, he doesn't, the entire experience is making him miserable - but he's restricted by what he can say due to the ongoing grand jury investigation. Played with when Sloan tells the reporters about Haldeman's role, and the reporters write up that he’ll testify to that effect. When Sloan doesn't testify to that in the grand jury, it makes the newspaper look like liars and gives the Nixon administration a reason to denounce the whole story. When confronted later, Sloan tells Bernstein he wanted to testify about Haldeman, but the special prosecutor never asked.
  • Cacophony Cover Up: Woodward comes to Bernstein's apartment, insists on turning Classical Music, loud, and communicates with Bernstein by typing notes on his typewriter after being warned that their apartments are bugged. The piece we hear is Vivaldi's Concerto in C for Two Trumpets.
  • Cassandra Truth: John Mitchell's wife, Martha, is mentioned offhand as going around town indicting Nixon for the whole Watergate fiasco. No one believes her. Of course, Martha also claimed her husband was innocent, despite the fact Mitchell had handled the slush fund personally and knew about the break-in and cover-up. In Real Life Bernstein interviewed Martha himself, but found her uncooperative and telling him little that he didn't already know.
  • CIA Evil, FBI Good: An early example of this trope: the movie highlights that Howard Hunt and the Watergate burglars were veterans of the CIA, while the FBI agents are shown cooperating with Woodward and Bernstein's investigation despite interference from above (not to mention the fact that Deep Throat turned out to be the FBI Deputy Director, W. Mark Felt). The movie ignores that Nixon's FBI Director, L. Patrick Gray, played a major role in the cover-up and that Gordon Liddy, who orchestrated the burglary, was a former FBI agent.
  • Cluster F-Bomb: The "ratfucking" scene. For a PG-rated movie, the number of F-bombs dropped was pretty high (today it would probably be at least a PG-13, but that rating wouldn't exist for another eight years).
  • Composite Character:
    • The Bookkeeper, played by Jane Alexander, was a composite of various staffers working in the CRP campaign. Mostly, she was Judy Hoback, who provided a wealth of useful information.
    • Subverted with Deep Throat: a number of critics and amateur sleuths were convinced Deep Throat was an invention of Woodward to make it harder to identify one informant in Nixon's inner circle. Also because Deep Throat seemed too freaky to be real. It was always one man (W. Mark Felt).
  • Da Editor: Ben Bradlee of the Washington Post.
  • Dated History: W. Mark Felt revealed in 2005 that he was Deep Throat. He was beginning to suffer from poor health and dementia and decided to step forward before he could no longer remember it.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Deep Throat has a few moments, mostly chiding either Woodward or the Nixon Adminstration itself.
    Deep Throat: Forget the myths the media's created about the White House. The truth is, these are not very bright guys, and things got out of hand.
    Deep Throat: They bugged offices, they followed people, planted false press leaks, passed fake letters... they canceled Democratic campaign rallies, they investigated Democratic private lives, they planted spies, they stole documents... and now don't tell me that all of this was the work of little Don Segretti.
    Deep Throat: You've done worse than let Haldeman slip away: you've got people feeling sorry for him. I didn't think that was possible. note 
  • Death Glare: Bradlee gives Bernstein a withering one when Bernstein objects one too many times to one of their stories being kept off the front page. Bernstein immediately shuts up.
  • Dick Dastardly Stops to Cheat: One editor of the Post objects that the Democrats are in such state of disarray that Nixon resorting to the Watergate underhandedness makes no sense. It's later revealed that it's all part of a (likely still unnecessary given the huge 1972 landslide) campaign engineered by the White House to undermine the Democrats.
  • Dirty Cop:
    • John Mitchell, the Top Cop - Attorney General - of United States law enforcement.note  His successor, Richard Kleindienst, isn't any better, and is seen on television via archive footage blatantly lying about the Watergate investigation.
    • Averted for the most part by the cops and law enforcement types at the grunt level.
    • The Watergate Burglars and their handlers were mostly CIA contractors: technically dirty spies,note  not cops. Though Gordon Liddy, the mastermind of the burglary, was an ex-FBI agent.
  • Dramatically Missing the Point: When Woodward and Bernstein ask Sloan if they would be wrong to write a story naming Haldeman as the fifth man to control the secret fund, Sloan replies "Let me put it this way. I would have no problems if you wrote a story like that." Woodward and Bernstein take this to mean that Sloan named Haldeman to the grand jury, and say so in the story. They get a couple more dubious confirmations of this, and the paper publishes the story. The next day, the shit hits the fan: the TV news has Sloan telling the press that he never named Haldeman to the grand jury, and the White House Press Secretary is accusing the Post of being biased. It turns out that the reason Sloan would have had no problem with them saying that Haldeman was the fifth man to control the fund was not that Haldeman wasn't that man, but that the grand jury never asked him about Haldeman at all. He wouldn't have a problem with the writing of that story as it was (because it was the truth!), but he never said anything about other people...
  • Dropped a Bridge on Him: After the whole odyssey, we learn of Nixon's downfall in a teletype shown before the end credits, a narrative device devoid of any character interaction.
  • Epic Fail: How Deep Throat describes Woodward and Bernstein's screwup of the investigation of notoriously assholish H.R. Haldeman.
    Deep Throat: You've done worse than let Haldeman slip away: you've got people feeling sorry for him. I didn't think that was possible.
  • Even Evil Has Standards: Segretti, who was willing to sabotage Democratic efforts to take back the White House, drew the line at what happened at Watergate.
  • Exact Words: The White House denounces the Post's reporting as "hearsay", "innuendo", and "character assassination". What the White House doesn't do is accuse the Post of lying or being mistaken or ever actually say that the story is wrong (... except when they actually do mess up with Sloan, as described above). Bradlee calls this a "non-denial denial". Bradlee at one point writes the response to another attack: We stand by our story. "There. That's my non-denial denial."
    • There's a comedic example later in the film where one of Bernstein's sources confirms that "John Haldeman" controlled the illegal campaign fund. Bernstein doesn't realize that the source has mixed up Haldeman and another presidential aide, John Ehrlichman, until Woodward points this out to him. Bernstein has to call the source back to confirm which assistant he meant.
  • Film Noir: Set the gold standard for 70s neo-noir, particularly in the scenes with Deep Throat.
  • Fire-Forged Friends: Bernstein and Woodward don't like each other much at first. But being in the firing line for this investigation brings them into a close friendship.
  • Foregone Conclusion: Nixon resigns, depicted by a teletype.note 
  • Forensic Accounting: The movie made the phrase "Follow the money" a part of the political lexicon and popular culture. In the film, it is whispered to reporter Bob Woodward by Deep Throat as a way to cut through the lies and deceptions and find the truth about the Watergate scandal. This is a fictionalized line created by the movie, but nevertheless catches the spirit of the process perfectly.
  • Foreshadowing: Early on, when Woodward tries reaching Deep Throat, he mentions that Deep Throat has been a go-to source on his earlier stories into the attempted assassination of George Wallace. It's an early clue that Deep Throat is a high-ranking FBI official, since the FBI was in charge of that investigation and Woodward quoted many FBI officials, including W. Mark Felt.
  • The Ghost: None of the major players in the scandal actually appear as characters: Nixon, Vice President Spiro Agnew note  and Attorney General Richard Kleindienst are seen on television via archive footage, and John Mitchell is only heard over the phone making threats to Bernstein. The only ones our heroes actually meet are low-level campaign figures like Sloan and Segretti. Also Katherine Graham, then-publisher of the Washington Post and one of the most well-known figures of Watergate on the Post side of things, is never seen but only referred to by other characters.
  • Good Smoking, Evil Smoking: As the pair are in an elevator, Woodward asks Bernstein "Is there any place you don't smoke?". In a beautiful Gilligan Cut, the next shot shows them leaving the elevator — which is filled with smoke.
  • Government Conspiracy
  • Historical Domain Character: EVERYONE of course, including Richard Nixon.
  • Hope Spot: Woodward and Bernstein have tried doggedly to interview people from the Committee to Re-Elect, without any success (either people just refuse to talk to them because they're offended by what the reporters are doing, or they're too scared to talk to the press). Then they come across one woman who not only is willing but eager to talk to them, and is angry about what the Nixon administration has been doing. One problem; she doesn't work for the Committee to Re-Elect; she works in the private sector, and Woodward and Bernstein have the right last name but the wrong first name.
  • Human-Interest Story: An editorial meeting mentions making space for a human interest story.
  • Intrepid Reporter: Woodward and Bernstein set the modern standard for investigative reporting in the United States.
  • Kick the Dog: John Mitchell casually makes an obscene and misogynistic threat towards Katie Graham over a story the Post is about to publish that implicates him in the CREEP slush fund. This only emboldens the Post to go ahead with the story, albeit with the obscenity in question redacted.
  • Minor Crime Reveals Major Plot: What looks like a simple burglary turns out to be part of a wide-ranging bugging operation involving numerous White House staff members, many more of whom are then involved in trying to cover up the White House's involvement in the operation. Whether or not Nixon himself was involved in the bugging is still disputed, but he is near universally agreed to have participated in the cover-up.
  • Mysterious Informant: "Deep Throat" (eventually revealed in 2005 as FBI Deputy Director W. Mark Felt) is the trope namer.
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed: A few players in the story are portrayed with either pseudonymous names (e.g. Douglas Caddy, the burglars' attorney, is named "Markham" in the film) or as anonymous composite characters (e.g. Judy Hoback as the Bookkeeper or Mark Felt as Deep Throat, and that was many years before Felt revealed himself to be Deep Throat).
  • No Ending: The film ends abruptly with a teletype reporting Nixon's resignation & Gerald Ford's inauguration (chronologically; two teletypes before that, dated 1975, report on the outcome of the trials against Haldeman & Mitchell).
  • Noodle Incident: The Watergate hearings and Nixon's resignation are not depicted in the movie, only related by teletyped headlines before the credits.
  • Odd Couple: Woodward is tidy, ex-military, and a registered Republican. He's also an exemplary researcher and interviewer. Bernstein is unkempt, disorganized, and a wannabe rock music critic. He's also a better writer than Woodward. Together, they collaborate on one of the biggest stories of the 1970s! And Woodward's apartment is a disaster, while Bernstein's is relatively neat. (Although at one point Bernstein drops cigarette ash all over the couch in Bradlee's office, while Woodward reaches over and dusts it off.)
  • Off the Record: Which starts annoying the hell out of Bradlee, because it makes it harder to vouch that the newspaper’s reporting is accurate. One misprint and Nixon's people will denounce the whole story...
  • Oh, Crap!:
    • When Woodward calls E. Howard Hunt early in the investigation and asks him why his name and number are in the address books of two of the Watergate burglars, a horrified Hunt exclaims, "Good God!" Woodward writes down his reaction verbatim, although Hunt ends the call very soon afterward.
    • Woodward has a muted one in the midst of a phone interview with Kenneth Dahlberg, who was connected to a $25,000 check that was deposited into the account of one of the Watergate burglars. When Dahlberg says "I...really shouldn't tell you this," Woodward is more annoyed than anything else at the hemming and hawing of his interviewee. But when Dahlberg discloses that he gave the money to Maurice Stans note , Woodward has a brief Thousand-Yard Stare as he realizes that this is far more than a simple botched burglary: this is something that the White House might have been aware of.
  • The Oner: A six-minute sequence in the hunt for Kenneth H. Dahlberg, starting when Woodward gets back to his desk to use the phone. Redford actually flubs his line towards the end and calls Dahlberg by the wrong name but stays in character which makes the shot work anyway.
    • A later shot has Woodward busy working as in the background, the rest of the newsroom staff gather around a TV broadcasting the outcome of the Republican convention's candidate vote.
  • Portmanteau Couple Name: The two reporters are called "Woodstein" in-universe during a discussion about whether to take them off the story. Bradlee yells "WOODSTEIN!" when one of their confirmed stories appears to have been wrong.
  • Precision F-Strike:
    • When Woodward discusses some actions made to look like betrayal, Segretti identifies them by what they were referred to as, "ratfucking."
    • This from Ben Bradlee:
      Bradlee: Nothing's riding on this except the, uh, First Amendment to the Constitution, freedom of the press, and maybe the future of the country. Not that any of that matters, but if you guys fuck up again, I'm gonna get mad. Goodnight.
    • Also:
      John Mitchell: (quoted as saying) Katie Graham [the Post publisher] is gonna get her tit caught in a big fat wringer if that's published. (Yes, that is a real quote.)
    • Forty years later, Woodward and Bradlee were still chortling over Mitchell's quote on panel shows and interviews. Bradlee referred to "Mrs. Graham's arrangements" in a documentary. Katie Graham herself loved it, and this was her favorite film.
  • Properly Paranoid: Almost everybody with a connection to both the break-in and the CRP corrupt campaigning. Deep Throat practically works up Woodward into a paranoid state after a particular meeting.
    • Mocked earlier by Woodward when Bernstein, wired on thirty cups of coffee, babbles about his meeting with a secretary who finally gave some details, and his fear that CBS would barge in and scoop the story:
      Woodward: You're both paranoid. She's afraid of John Mitchell, and you're afraid of Walter Cronkite.
    • Verified at the end when Deep Throat is certain that the reporters' homes are bugged. In real life, they weren't.
  • Punch-Clock Villain: Most of the lower and mid-level White House and CREEP staffers are depicted as reluctant or unwitting accomplices in the cover-up. They still distrust Woodward and Bernstein, however, either due to their loyalty towards Nixon or because of threats and intimidation from their employers.
  • Rage Against the Mentor: Bernstein has a few expletive-filled rants about Bradlee's strict editorial comments.
  • Reality Is Unrealistic:
    • At one point Woodward is trying to interview a noticeably upset man (Kenneth H. Dahlberg, the top Republican fundraiser in Minnesota) over the phone about unusual campaign contributions. Without warning, Dahlberg says "I can’t talk to you right now, my neighbor's wife has been kidnapped!" and hangs up. What looks like a weird excuse to avoid questioning, however, wasn't: his neighbor's wife was kidnapped, and Dahlberg was overwhelmed with helping his neighbor out at the time. (This was the Virginia Piper case. She was fine - shaken up, but not hurt.) Dahlberg did indeed call back later and answer some of Woodward's questions.
    • Woodward's meetings with Deep Throat. They are shot in such Film Noir style that they seem to be little more than a lazy attempt by Hollywood to create a Deus ex Machina for the Post reporters...except Bob Woodward really did meet with Deep Throat in those covert manners, and it really was only one man on the inside (it was thought by some that Deep Throat was actually several people, represented by a single character in the book the movie was based on).
    • William Goldman had to tone down Harry Rosenfeld's dialogue because the man was so hilariously funny that Goldman didn't think that people would believe someone could be so spontaneously witty.
  • Revealing Cover-Up
  • Scandalgate: The Trope Namer, although in modern usage, "Watergate" sounds like a scandal about water rather than about the Watergate hotel and business complex in Washington, DC.
  • Scenery Porn: You will never find another movie that depicts office space this beautifully - oh, and the Washington, D.C. backdrops are nice to look at...
  • Shout-Out: An in-film one. Deep Throat relates a story of G. Gordon Liddy putting a lit flame to his hand at the party. The dialogue he relates Liddy as speaking are a word-for-word transcription from a similar scene in Lawrence of Arabia. It should be added that Liddy did this in Real Life, or claimed to, at least.
  • Shown Their Work: The production crew on the film spent $450,000 to replicate the Washington Post newsroom after it was deemed too distracting to shoot in the actual newsroom (as reporters would try to act for the cameras). To that end, they replicated the entire floorplan of the newsroom and got the Post to send over several crates of actual newsroom correspondence, which is shown throughout the film. This trope is also relevant to the tools and tactics the duo use to get information during the film; their methods have become a oft-copied standard of print journalism.
  • Smoking Gun: The tapes implicate Nixon's involvement in the scandal. The stuff about the tapes, however, never comes up during the movie. It happened later.
  • Stealth Hi/Bye: Deep Throat does this to Woodward at their second meeting. Somewhat justified here as Deep Throat was paranoid about being followed, and there was a noise of a car starting up; Woodward turned to look at it, and when he turned back, Deep Throat was gone.
  • Suspiciously Specific Denial: Relating a conversation to managing editor Howard Simons, Woodward explains that some PR guy denied that E. Howard Hunt or Charles Colson knew, or was a part of, the Watergate break-in. He says that he expected such a statement to be made, but he never asked about Watergate. He just wanted to know what Hunt's duties at the White House were.note 
    • Woodward (working alone on the story at this stage) realises there is something deeper going on when he phones the White House library to find out what books had been checked out by Colson. In the space of ten real-time seconds, the librarian comes back on the phone & denies ever having anything to do with Colson, contrary to her earlier statement (recorded verbatim by Woodward) that Colson's library records were available.
  • Unspoken Plan Guarantee: Inverted in one scene where the pair of reporters plan out how they will get the stubborn bookkeeper to name names.
  • Villain with Good Publicity: Nixon, obviously.
  • Visible Boom Mic: One is seen late in the film when the pair are walking toward Bradlee's office. In the version shown on Turner Classic Movies the mic was digitally removed.
  • The Watcher: Deep Throat. Understandable, as Nixon was known to fire anyone who he even thought was against him; indeed, Woodward and Bernstein were so certain their contact would be killed, that they made it clear they would not reveal or confirm his identity until after he died or revealed it himself. (W. Mark Felt did the latter in 2005 at the age of 91, three years before his death.)
  • What the Hell, Hero?:
    • One of the editors questions why the Post is digging into Watergate. Partly because nobody else was covering the story at all, but mostly because the break-in itself made no sense. (Until Woodward and Bernstein uncover evidence that a hired trickster — Donald Segretti — was sabotaging Democratic primaries. All of a sudden, the break-in made more sense...)
      Scott: Why would the Republicans do it? McGovern's self-destructed just like Humphrey, Muskie, the bunch of them. I don't believe this story. It doesn't make sense.
    • A subtle one when the guys find out that Sally Aiken, a fellow reporter, used to date a White House communications director (Ken W. Clawson) and that he admitted to her that he was involved with some of Nixon's dirty tricks (specifically, writing the Canuck letter). Woodward and Bernstein ask her why she didn't tell them earlier:
      Sally Aiken: I guess I don't have the taste for the jugular you guys have.
  • Worst News Judgment Ever: At several points in the film, headlines for Woodward and Bernstein stories appear, usually overshadowed by other events in the news.
  • You Didn't Ask: When Sloan is subpoenaed for the grand jury investigating the allegations, Woodstein's story hinges on him naming Haldeman as the fifth campaign-fund manager. When he fails to do so, the White House crows about the Post's shoddy reporting, which demoralises the duo. It isn't until they visit Sloan again that he reveals that Haldeman was indeed the fifth man, but because the jury never asked him that question, he couldn't divulge it.