All the President’s Men

3 April 2011

For those of us of a certain age, especially those of us who once worked as journalists, All The President’s Men is an archetypal story: reporters, by good reporting, uncover wrongdoing piece by piece – and the trail goes all the way from a bungled break-in at the Watergate building to the heart of the White House. And watching it again with my family a few weeks ago sent me back to William Goldman’s own account of writing the screenplay. The biggest challenge was that by the time the film was made, everyone knew the ending (spoiler alert: the President did it).

So immediately there was a challenge in telling the story, which is why Goldman hit on the idea of ending at a low point, when Woodward and Bernstein had made a mistake which had let the White House back into the game. Of course, this creates the moment for one of the great Hollywood speeches, as Jason Robards, playing Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee, stands out on the lawn in his dressing gown late at night and tells the two reporters:

BEN BRADLEE: You know the results of the latest Gallup Poll? Half the country never even heard of the word Watergate. Nobody gives a shit. You guys are probably pretty tired, right? Well, you should be. Go on home, get a nice hot bath. Rest up… 15 minutes. Then get your asses back in gear. We’re under a lot of pressure, you know, and you put us there. 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 going to get mad.

Goldman invented the phrase ‘Follow the money‘, Deep Throat’s advice to Woodward (and if ever there was a truth…), and there is some fine screenwriting elsewhere. “Turn your exposition into argument” runs the advice to tyro screenwriters, and the early scene when Bernstein takes Woodward’s copy and rewrites it tells us lots about their experience, about their relationship, and something about newswriting as well. The film also reminds us – you have to read a little between the lines – that the story would probably never have been broken if it had been left to the political reporters.

Goldman has the screenwriting credit, and won an Oscar for it, but he didn’t have a happy experience working on it. In his memoir Adventures in the Screen Trade he recalls going to a meeting with Redford, who was executive producer as well as c0-star. Bernstein and Nora Ephron (then Bernstein’s girlfriend) put their alternative version of the script on the table.

One scene in the film survives from that script – where Bernstein (Hoffman) tricks the receptionist at the Dade County Sheriff’s Office into leaving her desk so he can slip past in her absence. It’s an amusing scene when it plays in the movie. There was just one problem with it, as Goldman notes:

it didn’t happen – they made it up. It was a phony Hollywood moment. God knows I’ve written enough of them,  – but I never would have dreamed of using it in a movie about the fall of the President of the United States.

The still is from ET Online, and is used with thanks.

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