Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Super Delegates: Richard M. Nixon in "All the President's Men" (1976)

Scene from All the President's Men
Welcome to Super Delegates, a bi-monthly column released on Tuesdays and are done in part to recognize politics on film, specifically in regards to Oscar-nominated works. With this being an election year in the United States, it feels like a good time to revisit film history's vast relationship with politicians of any era and determine what makes them interesting while potentially connecting them to the modern era. The series plans to run until the end of this 2016 election cycle, so stay tuned for every installment and feel free to share your thoughts on films worthy of discussion in the comments section.

All the President's Men
Release Date: April 9, 1976
Directed By: Alan J. Pakula
Written By: Carl Bernstein & Bob Woodward (Book), William Goldman (Screenpay)
Starring: Robert Redford, Dustin Hoffman, Jack Warden
Oscar Wins: 4
-Best Supporting Actor (Jason Robards)
-Best Adapted Screenplay
-Best Art Direction-Set Direction
-Best Sound
Oscar Nominations: 4
-Best Picture
-Best Director
-Best Supporting Actress (Jane Alexander)
-Best Editing
Delegates in Question:
-President Richard M. Nixon

*NOTE: Part of the Richard Nixon Series.

Over the course of the 20th century, has there ever been a political scandal as notorious as the Watergate scandal? It resonates so much that 40 years later, almost any event with the least bit of ambiguity adds "-gate" to its moniker. In football, there was "Deflate-Gate" over the speculation that footballs were being punctured to alter the kicks. While it is a joke that doesn't hold up to scrutiny (Watergate didn't actually involve water), it does reflect the impact that the event had on America's social well being. It was an event that began the general public's paranoia that the government could be spying on them. It was also the singular event that inspired a shift in journalism.

At the center is Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman): two writers for The Washington Post who uncovered the Watergate scandal. The film is a depiction of how they came to the conclusion that President Richard M. Nixon was spying on the Democratic National Convention. While mundane to write, the cinematic version of their story is a riveting act of journalism in motion. Much like Spotlight from 2015, All the President's Men shows the process of uncovering a story and constantly badgering sources for information at any cost. By the end, the journalists are praised for being stubborn, uncovering one of America's greatest scandals, and one that forever tarnished the reputation of Nixon for generations to come.

In a previous entry of Super Delegates, I explored how Frost/Nixon empathized Nixon by showing his paranoia and loneliness. He was a quiet man whose insecurity made his decision to be president a little haphazard. Much like his predecessor, Lyndon B. Johnson, part of his presidency was spent recording every conversation, afraid that he would be caught in a conundrum that would need the information. He was also self-conscious about sweating while on camera: an act that he believed cost him the presidency against John F. Kennedy in 1960. He was a man who could be described as a loner. He was conflicting largely because he got power that maybe he shouldn't have had. He did many great things, but as Frost/Nixon explores: it is one event that forever ruined his career.

While the former president appears in archival footage, All the President's Men is more about the consequences of his actions on the people he worked for. With various resources like "Deep Throat" giving prime information, Woodward and Bernstein follow a trail that leads to plausible conclusions. One could call it a mystery movie, but most everyone in 1976 was likely familiar with the scandals. Vice President Gerald Ford's career as the replacement president would find difficulty in overcoming Nixon's shadow, eventually losing the following election to a as good and honest southerner named Jimmy Carter who claimed that "I will not knowingly lie to the American people." For the next few presidencies, there was almost a need to wipe away the sense of dishonesty that Woodward and Bernstein uncovered in the Watergate scandal. It was a film relevant to the moment, though manages to be both a piece of history as well as a clear cut fantasy of how journalism should be in America: tough and dedicated.

Beyond being tough and dedicated, what turned Woodward and Bernstein into icons was that they lacked subjectivity. They told the story as the facts were given. There was an ecstatic joy of telling the truth. While Nixon wasn't the first president to be mistrusted by the general public, it was the first in the late 20th century that could be scrutinized by media coverage and actual footage/recordings. He was easy to lampoon, as he was portrayed as a greedy and demonic figure. Even then, All the President's Men's bigger concern was the facts. It's because of them that a generation of reporters became interested in political journalism. Their dedication to exploring the truth has lead to many reporters doing thorough investigation into corruption within America. Some has even lead to change, such as their coverage of the Watergate scandal did. To some extent, that paints these two journalists as the heroes America deserved - as the country could look a whole lot different if Nixon wasn't caught.

In modern politics, it is easy to see journalism's impact. While initial reports tried to share unbiased opinions of both Democratic party candidate Hillary Clinton and Republican party candidate Donald Trump, they eventually began to turn on Trump. This is largely due to his questionable and flagrant comments, such as suggesting that Clinton started the rumor that President Barrack Obama was not born in America when the contrary was more prevalent. Slowly, the press turned on him. The New York Times did the unprecedented task of endorsing Clinton publicly. The press began to take a more liberal bias, likely because of Trump being such a conflicting candidate morally.

In a move that Woodward and Bernstein likely would've adored in the mid-70's, news coverage has even began to fact check the candidates in real time. At a majority of live rallies that the news covers, each candidate is brought under scrutiny in a bar across the bottom of the screen. If Trump declares a statement that is knowingly false, there are parentheses that will clarify the statement's accuracy. It is a move that has revolutionized journalism, and is likely mostly due to perceptively shady candidates knowingly lying to audiences on national TV. In a sense, this helps to prevent a Watergate scandal from being as secretive - even if there's plenty that the general public will likely never be privy to. 

Still, the quest for truth is something that All the President's Men fights for, and it continues to inspire. Maybe it's unfortunate that Nixon did some illegal behaviors to get there, but there is a sense of optimism for truth prevailing. Maybe there will never be an absence of wrongdoing in the world. However, journalists will be there to cover the story and hopefully get the news to those who can make a change. While there's still two more entries in the Nixon portion of Super Delegates (Secret Honor, Nixon), this entry feels the most telling of how we see Nixon's legacy. While Frost/Nixon does wonders to sympathize him, it is through the work of Woodward and Bernstein that the audience understands the impact of Nixon's work. Watergate was a scandal for the ages, and history will likely never forget that thanks to two men.

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