(left to right) actor Dustin Hoffman, reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodard,and actor/producer Robert Redford at the premiere of the movie in 1976 in Washington, DC.
While perhaps not the best finest political film ever made in America, the Alan J. Pakula directed "All the President's Men" (1976) might have been the most widely anticipated... and the least disappointing.
The 1974 book on which it was based came out a few months before Richard Nixon resigned the Presidency on August 9th of that same year. Leading up that point were eighteen months of subpoenas, lies and denials from official sources inside the White House.
It was the investigation of a late-night "third-rate burglary" on the Democratic Party headquarters at the Watergate Hotel on June 17, 1972 and the eventual tie-in to Nixon and his minions behind the special secret "plumbers unit" of the Committee to Re-Elect the President (CRP, also known as "Creep) that led to "the greatest Constitutional crisis in America since the Civil War."
The movie itself sets about detailing how two unheralded journalists opened a crack in the inner sanctum of power by establishing a connection between the Mafia-like operations of secret money exchanges and secret slush funds in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. These monies were clandestinly diverted to, among other things, financing "The Plumbers" operations. Nixon knew directly about the break-in a few day later, and instructed H.R. Halderman, his trusted aide, to get the FBI off investigating the case "for the good of the country".
Once the burglars were caught by the police and put on trial, money was needed to buy their silence in court about who they worked for, in effect suborning perjury in a criminal case. Nixon had no problem with that.
In the most ironic twist of that era, all was revealed on the audio tapes that Nixon himself made of his phone calls and meetings in the Oval Office
By early 1973 the rest of the media (and, lo and behold, even the Congress!) had begun to sit up and take notice. Senate Hearings were held, chaired by the amiable Democratic Senator from North Carolina, Sam Ervin. I recall they made for much more interesting viewing in the Summer and Fall of '73 then any programing of game shows and local news I'd even seen.
After numerous denials by the inner circle of the White House that the powers-that-be knew anything about a secret money laundering and black-bag operations, one man, Nixon's personal lawyer, John Dean, came forward and spilled the beans on his boss. A lot of other things fell into place after that. Soon Special Counsels appointed by Congress (Harvard professor Archibald Cox and later Leon Jarworski) demanded some of those White House tapes and transcripts be made available for the public to see just how deep in the scandal the White House "men" were.
Nixon fired Cox during the famous "Saturday Night Massacre" on a weekend in October of 1973 and also had to fire two of his Attorney Generals who refused to do the deed. No matter; the wheels of justice ground on. Eventually the Supreme Court ordered Nixon to turn over all documents related to the scandal, including the tapes, a system revealed under oath by Presidential aide named Alexander Butterfield.
Nixon's taping system had "hoisted him on his own petard", as Shakespeare might have said, repeating himself from "Hamlet". Many of Nixon's men went to jail. The Man himself was pardoned by his appointed vice-President Gerald Ford a month after leaving office. Nixon was one step ahead of losing his office (and his pension and other perks) when he quit and likely facing jail before being pardoned. The system had worked, and at least a certain amount of justice served.
But the narrative of this fine film only goes up to the beginning of Nixon's Second term. No matter. Everyone seeing it like me in a theater in 1976 knew what the ending would be already. The end of "Nixonland" in the USA was broken down in a series of camera shots of headlines spiting out on a telex machine--headlines ending with Nixon's resignation as the last piece of news in the film.
I wonder if the modern media really goes in much for investigative journalism these days if there's not a sex scandal involved? Certainly more could have been done to refute the case for the war in Iraq in 2003 for instance. But this film reminds us at least that there was one time in American politics, to quote the newsman Jimmy Breslin, that "the good guys finally won."Here Robert Redford (as reporter Bob Woodard) gets a strong idea just how far into the Executive Branch this story of five burglars caught at the DNC headquarters might go.
It's perhaps the greatest irony of the whole "Watergate Crisis" that the Democratic party challenger for the top job, the ill-starred Senator George McGovern of South Dakota, or any other nominee would likely have lost the campaign anyway thanks to Nixon's trip to China and the ending of the direct American role in the War in Vietnam.
But Nixon didn't know alll that in 1971, when he unleashed his goons and employed illegal money schemes to try and ensure himself another four years of power.