Washington Post film critic and scholar Ann Hornaday has written a fascinating, exactingly researched, justifiably lengthy piece about the making of All The President’s Men. It includes three video summaries (pasted below).
The article is not very kind to the efforts of ATPM‘s late screenwriter William Goldman, but Hornaday did a ton of research (including in-depth discussions with producer-star Robert Redford and Bob Woodward, co-author of the same-titled book that the film was based upon), and this is how the chips fell.
The title is “How All the President’s Men Went From Buddy Flick to Masterpiece.”
The invisible subtitle is “How Everyone Involved In This 1976 Film Except William Goldman Saved It From Goldman’s Initial Drafts, Which Were On The Glossy and Rapscallion Side and Less Than Genuine.”
This despite Hornaday acknowledging that Goldman’s earliest drafts of All the President’s Men “included most of the key beats that defined the early stages of the Watergate investigation.”
Goldman, whom I came to know moderately well over a few lunches at Cafe Boloud in the early to mid Obama years, reported in his Adventures in the Screen Trade account that he had done much if not most of the heavy lifting.
During a meeting with Bob Woodward, Goldman “had asked him to list ‘the crucial events — not the most dramatic but the essentials — that enabled the story eventually to be told,” Hornaday summarizes.
“When Woodward named them — the break-in, the arraignment, his combative collaboration with Bernstein, his late-night meetings with confidential source Deep Throat in an Arlington parking garage, his and Bernstein’s interviews with such key figures as Hugh Sloan, and their work together on an article about a $25,000 check written to CREEP Midwest finance chairman Kenneth Dahlberg — Goldman, according to his account, looked at what he’d written and saw that he’d included every one.”
A key passage in Hornaday’s piece: “The journey of All the President’s Men from mediocrity to triumph tells an alternately sobering and inspiring truth about movies: The great ones are a function of the countless mistakes that didn’t get made — the myriad bad calls, lapses in taste and bouts of bad luck that encase every production like a block of heavy, unyielding stone.”
As noted, the piece presents a case that many if not most of the “mistakes” were Goldman’s. If Goldman is reading this piece in heaven, he’s most likely howling and shaking his fist and punching his refrigerator door.
Hornaday: “This is the story of how producer-star Robert Redford and director Alan Pakula, and the cast and crew they assembled, bullied Goldman’s flawed but structurally brilliant script into art. It’s the story of a perfect movie and imperfect history, a cautionary tale whose lessons — about impunity, abuse of power and intimidation of the press — have taken on new urgency nearly 50 years after its release.
“It’s the story of how what was intended as a small-bore black-and-white character study featuring unknown actors became one of the finest films of the 20th century, one that marked the end of a cinematic era, changed journalism forever and — for better or worse — became the fractal through which we’ve come to understand the dizzyingly complicated saga known as Watergate.”
A friendlier account of Goldman’s efforts can be found in Jordan Orlando‘s “William Goldman Turned Reporters Into Heroes” — The New Yorker, 11.27.18. Without presuming anything in terms of accuracy or inaccuracy, here’s an excerpt:
“In All the President’s Men, Redford’s cowboy-movie-star image peeks through the buttoned-down façade of his Bob Woodward-like Superman’s costume emerging from within Clark Kent’s mild-mannered-reporter guise: beneath the button-down shirts, he sports Western jewelry and Redford’s left-handed Rolex. (Dustin Hoffman, who plays Carl Bernstein, came from the New York school of method acting, and wears Bernstein’s original wristwatch.) Redford’s first scene — that same Chandler-esque passage, in which Woodward is awakened early by the telephone — shows the blond, tanned actor wearing a white T-shirt in bed, revealing the silver neck chain he wears throughout.
“[In short] Redford makes no effort to mimic Woodward’s deliberate manner. His performance is a star turn — simply by standing onscreen, Redford imbues Woodward, the Post, and all of journalism with Hollywood glitter.
“Goldman’s achievement, given all of this, is even more impressive. The tightrope walk that his screenplay braves — remaining informative, comprehensive, and reasonably accurate to the book while telling a compelling movie story without slipping too far into hagiography and glamour –is so deftly mastered that a viewer barely notices the tricks that make it work.
“’This is a very complicated story, and I had to simplify it because the audience cannot keep referring to a scorecard to determine who’s who,’ Goldman said. ‘In this film, there could be no faking. We were, moreover, dealing with a case of instant legend. I have no doubt that a century hence, Watergate and Nixon will be the stuff of which great drama will be written, but we lacked the luxury of time for perspective.”
“Goldman cuts the book in half. For the climax of the film, he uses the reporters’ botched handling of background information that seemed to conclusively incriminate H. R. Haldeman, Nixon’s chief of staff in the conspiracy to conceal White House involvement in illegal activities, followed by the Post’s recovery from that near-disaster.
“Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid began with the rattle of an antique movie projector, pulling the audience into the mythos of movie Westerns; All the President’s Men starts with the deafening slam of magnified typewriter keys on paper, spelling out the month and day of the first scene, giving the movie itself a newspaper-style dateline. The movie ends with an old-fashioned ‘where are they now’ epilogue, brilliantly delivered via closeups of a newswire printer banging out headlines about the conspirators’ trials and convictions and, finally, Nixon’s resignation.
“Goldman invented the movie’s most famous line: ‘Follow the money,’ the directive that Deep Throat, Woodward’s mysterious source in the executive branch, issues during the first of their legendary parking-garage meetings, successfully guiding the reporters’ investigation toward paydirt.
“Less well remembered is what follows: the riveting sequences in which Bernstein and Woodward do just that—first, there’s Bernstein’s forceful interview with the Dade County, Florida, state attorney’s chief investigator, Martin Dardis (played by Ned Beatty, in one of the movie’s many superb cameos), which prompts Woodward to hunt down Kenneth H. Dahlberg, the Republican finance chairman whose cashier’s check was found in the bank account of one of the Watergate burglars. This pivotal scene — an uninterrupted six-minute shot of Woodward on the phone — might be one of Redford’s finest scenes as an actor, but it’s Goldman’s shrewd reshaping of the complex and dull material (which is somehow neither, onscreen) that provides the music for his virtuoso performance.
“Other instances of the script straying from the book—while remaining entirely faithful to its purpose and meaning—further illustrate Goldman’s screenwriting skill.
“Goldman seizes on a minor anecdote from the book, in which Woodward sees Bernstein taking his pages from the city desk and rewriting them (‘Woodward decided to walk over and find out what was happening. Bernstein was rewriting the story. Woodward read the rewritten version. It was better.’) as the foundation for an expanded scene in which the two reporters first meet and clash: ‘I don’t mind what you did; I mind the way you did it,’ Woodward scolds Bernstein, as Redford and Hoffman’s onscreen chemistry ignites.
“The Post’s city editor Harry M. Rosenfeld (played by Jack Warden) persuades the managing editor Howard Simons (Martin Balsam) to keep Woodward and Bernstein on the story as it grows more important, despite their inexperience, in another fictional exchange: ‘Howard, they’re hungry…you remember when you were hungry?’
“The foreign editor, an invented character named Scott (played by John McMartin) is positioned as the naysayer, warning Bradlee and Simons off the investigation (‘It’s a dangerous story for this paper…I don’t believe this story’), flattering the audience’s post-facto knowledge while underlining the risks involved in pursuing such an implausible story.
“And finally, Jason Robards’ two stem-winding monologues—galvanized versions of Bradlee’s quotations scattered through the book—drive home the movie’s core themes about journalism’s necessary balance of canny brinkmanship with social responsibility. ‘I messed up, but I wasn’t wrong,’ he tells the reporter duo ‘Woodstein,’ relating an instance in which he was burned by a source. (‘I can’t do the reporting for my reporters, which means I have to trust them, and I hate trusting anybody,’ Goldman has Bradlee say.)
“And, in the movie’s final lines, after the reporters have learned that their lives are in danger, Bradlee neatly delivers Goldman’s coda:
“We’re under a lot of pressure, you know, and you put us there — nothing’s riding on this except the First Amendment of 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.’”