When discussing the theme of surveillance, it would be an oversight to ignore the Watergate scandal – the root of much of this cinematic paranoia which brought these fears and issues to the table. In 1976 this extraordinary political event was dramatised in Alan J. Pakula’s All The President’s Men.
Based on their book of the same name, All The President’s Men follows Washington Post journalists Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward as they try desperately to get to the bottom of a corruption scandal which goes all the way to the top. The film lets the intriguing story speak for itself, led by an excellent two-hander from Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford. More a historical account than a cinematic experience, it never really explores its characters and focuses solely on the unfolding series of events, but its accuracy, performances and screenplay cannot be faulted.
The Watergate scandal itself began in 1972 with the wiretapping of the Democratic Party headquarters by Republican officials close to President Nixon, whose involvement in the subsequent cover-up eventually led to his resignation. What this scandal, and the film’s depiction, reveals is the way surveillance is used by governments – not for the safety of the public but for the protection of the powerful. In the film we see officials close ranks faster than the Metropolitan Police, with the threat of surveillance suddenly shifted onto Bernstein and Woodward; journalists who are getting too close to the truth.
It’s this message about journalism which is the thrust of All The President’s Men, presenting Bernstein and Woodward as heroes holding the government to account despite great risk to themselves, as good journalists should. It’s interesting watching All The President’s Men in the wake of the recent phone hacking scandal, with the Guardian newspaper investigating illegal wiretapping authorised by friends of David Cameron. The interesting question of whether or not Cameron knew about the thoroughly immoral activity taking place echoes the question of whether Nixon knew about the Watergate bugging. Spoiler alert: He did.
Almost as prevalent is the issue of whistle-blowing. No one in All The President’s Men will talk to the Washington Post, fearing repercussions from the White House – “Please leave before they see you,” one character pleads. Famously, an anonymous source codenamed Deep Throat (who was later confirmed as William Mark Felt Sr., former deputy director of the FBI) provided much of the information but would only meet Woodward in an underground car park at 2 am, in scenes particularly well executed in the film. With Edward Snowden charged by the United States for similar leaks, All The President’s Men is a clear reminder that governments are all too capable of abusing power.
All The President’s Men tells of the dangers of surveillance, the importance of a free press and the ever-present possibility that your government is lying to you. The Watergate cover-up was about hiding the covert intelligence operations of the powerful, which seem to be getting more and more invasive by the day. It’s a film which explains an entire nation’s paranoia, which has been the fuel of so much great cinema over the decades.