One cannot watch the movie The Post (2017), out in theaters now, without immediately recalling All the President’s Men (1976), at least for those of us of a certain age for whom the Watergate scandal carved out a huge chunk of our formative years. Making comparisons is inevitable not only between the two movies of the two overlapping scandals of the Nixon years—the publishing of the Pentagon Papers and Watergate—but obviously between the Nixon administration and the current scandals in the Trump White House. Film, either consciously or unconsciously, reflects who we are as a society. But there is one great difference in our present day experience with the Trump White House from the Nixon White House: We are no longer able to be shocked, and we are much more willing to accept scandal as a normal fact of life. Nixon’s offenses and even crimes were far less than Trump’s. Nixon, for all his odious activities, never committed treason. For many people, the outrage is gone, and that may mean we have been worn down, dumbed down, or been duped by the cynicism which a former generation considered a badge of honor, eschewing formerly held idealism as a weakness.
That is not to say there are not outraged people today or idealistic people. We have only to point to the hundreds of thousands of marchers in the past year, most notably of this past weekend, which by many accounts broke records of the greatest display of public protest in the history of this country. But our cynicism, which I think we once thought of as being realistic, mature, smart and savvy, maybe even cool, has weakened us. The tough outlook turned out to be a Trojan horse. The enemies of democracy—fascists and demagogues—got past the gate.
Today we will have a look at The Post, and All the President’s Men, as well as the classic film, All the King’s Men (1949). When All the King’s Men was produced in an era that left us, not unlike the Vietnam era, cynical in the backwash of a long and terrible war, it was a different examination of political corruption that has more to do with our current environment than the early 1970s does. There was great courage in examining the messianic character who is corrupted by his political office and leads his state towards fascism. World War II just being over, we knew very well the evils of fascism and the ultimate slavery, death and destruction that fascism brings, so it was a little like preaching to the choir, but there was still a courageous aspect to making this movie, based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Robert Penn Warren because we were in the first flush of the communist witch hunts. Any pushback on a far right candidate suggesting that fascism represented corruption, could bring an instant accusation of being a communist.
We haven’t come very far. Any protest or comment against the current administration is likely to bring, from many quarters both official and civilian, taunts, intimidation, and even death threats. We may deride the obvious stupidity of the person issuing a death threat for calling Trump an evil piece of garbage, but we must still take it seriously because stupidity is dangerous. In our Goebbels-like era where any charge against the current administration is called “fake news” with blathering idiocy, we must always be on guard for the freedom and autonomy of the Fourth Estate. Recently a nineteen-year-old jerk threatened to carry out a mass shooting in the offices of CNN. Presumably, he felt he was gaining celebrity in a heroic act for the sake of his Fuhrer.
The Post, much more than those other two movies, actually is idealistic in its portrayal of journalism as the watchdog of our freedom, and that was a delight and a surprise to me perhaps because of the admittedly nostalgic view we receive of the early 1970s through director Steven Spielberg’s viewfinder. Though the story of how The Washington Post brought out the scandalous Pentagon Papers, which laid out a roadmap for the corruption in the operation of the Vietnam War (the New York Times actually published the Pentagon Papers first) is certainly intrigue enough, the director clearly understood that nostalgia was going to be part of this story for a modern-day audience. It could not help but be so. When we see the fashions, and the hairstyles, the cavernous newsroom of The Washington Post with no computers (for anyone who ever aspired to a journalistic career, the sight of a newsroom is one of the most exciting things in the world, I kid you not) the cars, the phones, any number of items that jump out at us from the background that the art director has put on the set – this is obviously going to suck us in to the time and the mood of the era. Rather than push them at us with a teasing parody or coyness, the director seems to frankly acknowledge we are going to be interested in the nostalgic aspect of the look of the film and he invites us to look. Some of us were undoubtedly misty-eyed just seeing a mockup of a newspaper scratched over with blue pencil. Yes, there was a time when paste-up and layout actually physically meant paste-up and layout.
I can’t say that Tom Hanks reminded me very much of Ben Bradlee either in voice or demeanor, but he and Meryl Streep worked very well together. It is a film worth seeing not only because of their performances but because of the message of the movie (including a strong streak of women’s empowerment) and because it reflects the scandal of that former era that still resonates to our own.
For all that, it does not have the shock value that All the President’s Men has – still has. They are bridged, of course, by the incident of the Watergate scandal. At the very end of The Post we see a young security guard walking through a darkened building which we come to understand is the Watergate hotel. He stumbles upon a burglary in progress and he calls for the police. At the showing I attended, the theater was full of Baby Boomers, which was, in one way comfortable because everyone got the same jokes and at the very end of the movie everyone chuckled knowingly at the young security guard because we knew what was going to happen next. At the end of the film, as the credits rolled, everyone applauded. I don’t know if this movie is attracting any younger generations, but I hope so.
All the President’s Men begins at the point that The Post ends: when the young security guard discovers the break-in in progress. The genius of All the President’s Men is that it does not make any political judgment, and interestingly, no background story on the private lives of the reporters—it is a lean and muscular story only about their work and the mystery they have uncovered. Because it is a movie from the era about which it was made, there is no sense of nostalgia. There is no smiling at the lack of computers or the dial telephones; the director shows us current events. We are not looking to see if they got it right, because obviously, they did.
The movie is filmed like a spy novel or a detective story. The reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, played by Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford, had no idea what a hornets’ nest they’ve stumbled onto. The story comes together in bits and pieces, clues and interviews. One of the delights of the movie is seeing a roster of actors who we’ve come to know very well, including Jack Warden, Martin Balsam, John McMartin, Ned Beatty, Jane Alexander, Meredith Baxter, Allyn Ann McLerie, and others. Hal Holbrook plays the mole nicknamed “Deep Throat,” and Jason Robards plays Ben Bradlee in this version, and won Best Supporting Actor. His Ben Bradlee is more sneering, gruff and barking. Tom Hanks’ Bradlee has more of a twinkle in his eye. It was only in 2005 that the general public finally became made aware that Deep Throat was actually Deputy Director of the FBI W. Mark Felt.
The reporters go deeper and deeper and they are told by Hal Holbrook that in order to uncover the corruption they are going to have to “follow the money.” That saying was coined and made famous by this film. We have heard it in many investigations since.
The film covers only the first seven months of the investigation by the reporters into the Watergate scandal; it does not cover everything in the book by Bernstein and Woodward, on which the movie is based. Despite the creepy realization that the reporters have uncovered something truly sinister, it is the final moments of the film that pack the most punch—because of the idealistic image that pounds home the message. At the very end, we see the newsroom and a television on which is broadcasting Richard Nixon’s second inauguration ceremony. We see the reporters in the background typing on their manual typewriters. It is a remarkable image, and a proud one for anyone interested in journalism – indeed, the book of the movie spawned a new generation of journalists which brought, despite the scandal that inspired it, a new wave of political idealism, that what one said and what one wrote and what one believed mattered and would change the world.
The shock comes when the very last shot that shows us the staccato tapping of the unrelenting Teletype. It stamps out pounding letters (the pounding echoes the cannon salutes to the President during the ceremony on TV) in a string of simple declarative sentences listing what happened to the men involved in the Watergate scandal, bulletins of the indictments. The very last line typed out by the ferocious Teletype tells us that Richard Nixon has resigned and that Gerald R. Ford will be assuming the presidency at noon. The Teletype abruptly stops, freezing a moment in time. We look at the typed page and the sudden silence is deafening, and we are in awe that two reporters typing on manual typewriters could have brought down an administration with something so strong – and so vulnerable – as the truth. You can watch that scene here on YouTube.
All the King’s Men is actually even more stark and cynical than those two modern movies. It begins with the character Willie Stark as a small town self-taught lawyer who runs for office with honorable intentions, and by the time he reaches the governor’s mansion, he has become corrupt, bullying, his administration held up by patronage, bribes, and lies. He is a kind of self-styled messianic figure who leads his base of “hicks.” It is said that he is based on real-life 1930s Louisiana governor Huey Long (though author Mr. Warren denies this).
Broderick Crawford won the Best Actor award for his role as Willie Stark. Best Supporting Actress that year went to Mercedes McCambridge, who plays his political aide and one of his mistresses. She is riveting the moment she appears on screen, a forceful, bitter, snide, and shrewd woman who, like most of his aides and Crawford himself, seems to have no moral objective. The only goal is to win. John Ireland plays the young reporter who follows Stark and presents the story to us through his view. Ireland is corrupted, too, when he joins the staff. His fiancée becomes Broderick Crawford’s next mistress. We might think that at some point, even though their eyes are open to what a monster Crawford is, including his longsuffering wife and adopted son, played by John Derek, they continue to allow themselves to coast in the trail of this mouthy, forceful man’s blind ambition. He is so oily, he even subverts an impeachment investigation against him.
The state in the movie is unnamed, but it could be any state. It does not take much for certain personalities to become tyrants. But their power always comes from below, their loyal base that slavishly allows the demagogue to rule with an iron hand. Eventually, of course, all fascist regimes fail due to their own suicidal compulsion and paranoia to punish and control, especially their own supporters, to divide and subvert. We saw this in a string of movies in our series on American fascism last summer which began here with The Mortal Storm (1940).
There are certain lines in this compelling movie that echo the political environment today. One of them, when John Ireland’s mentor, a judge, who is the uncle of his fiancée, berates him for his joining Broderick Crawford’s staff and supporting his corrupt administration despite knowing Crawford is evil. The judge, played by Raymond Greenleaf accuses Ireland, and Crawford’s base: “You’re afraid to admit you made a mistake.”
Broderick Crawford has assembled his own private security squad. He has taken over newspapers and radio stations. He cannot stand criticism. His quest for power is vindictive and full of conceit. Interesting how this 1949 old movie parable can have such relevance today, perhaps even more than All the President’s Men or The Post. We note that in this movie, the journalist is complicit.
It is always tempting to look back on a former era and draw parallels. But obviously, no one era is an exact template for another. If we are to adopt the adage that if we do not learn from history we are doomed to repeat it, we must also acknowledge that we can’t recreate the mood of the original era that keeps repeating. The cynicism in the wake of Watergate and Vietnam was preceded by a truly idealistic era in the early 1960s, and that idealism lingered and helped strengthen the marchers, the reporters, the investigators, all those who stood to bring down corruption. As such, though we may compare the Trump scandals and what will eventually be the inevitable downfall of his presidency to Nixon’s, society as a whole has more in common not with the early 1970s, but not even with the late 1940s which gave us All the King’s Men. I’d like to suggest that we really have more in common socially, politically, economically, even technologically, with the decade of the 1920s.
We’ll talk about that, and the movies that illustrate this, in the coming weeks.