No. 203 | December 30, 2010
Our theme this week
Recent movies based on stories of real people
I had included a quote from All the President’s Men when I previewed Fair Game in October, and now having seen the latter I’d say it’s as close to the 1976 Best Picture nominee as we’re likely to get these days. It doesn’t measure up entirely, but that may be more a reflection of different times and different outcomes to the stories than a problem with the filmmaking.
Both films are about wrongdoing in the White House, and both follow a couple of characters as they try to shed light on the truth. In the earlier film, the crime is a petty burglary at the Watergate complex, and Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s investigation of the burglary and its coverup lead to the resignation of a disgraced president. The new film is about lies that the Bush Administration told to lead our country into war against Iraq, and the efforts of two whistleblowers, CIA agent Valerie Plame (dead ringer Naomi Watts, in a first-rate performance) and her husband, Ambassador Joseph Wilson (a fine Sean Penn), to expose the truth. In the end, neither President Bush nor Vice President Cheney, who is the kingpin in this telling, is brought to justice. Scooter Libby, advisor to the vice president, is convicted in the scandal, but Bush soon commutes the sentence. Plame, meanwhile, loses her career as a CIA officer when her cover is blown by the White House as retribution for an op-ed that her husband wrote questioning the administration.
The story of All the President’s Men may have shaken people’s faith in our government, but at least the system worked. No feel-good equivalent is to be found in Fair Game‘s storyline. The film does try to leave us with a more positive message, but it’s only partly successful at dispelling the troubling sense we have watching a gross injustice go unpunished.
The Wilsons are not disloyal to the country. Rather, they are portrayed as true patriots. Yet the film is more than just about politics and justice. It’s a personal drama, and we get a look at the pressures that nearly tear apart the Wilson family. In this respect, Fair Game has a level of involvement not found in the earlier picture, in which Woodward and Bernstein have no life outside of their jobs.
Fair Game is recent history, a history still being written, and people with political agendas are actively working to skew reaction to the film. For more, this article by David Corn is worth a read.
No. 193 | November 9, 2010
Our theme this week
Films about the newspaper biz
All the President’s Men is a film made during the ’70s about events during the ’70s and watching it today you may notice that the times have changed. Hair was longer, cars were larger, telephones were stationary, but the biggest difference between then and now is in role that journalism played in covering, and shaping, momentous happenings of the day.
Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward are the two young and hungry reporters who crack the story, one of the biggest of the century. The film starts with a bungled break-in at Washington’s Watergate office complex, and (let’s hope no spoiler notice is needed here) ends with the downfall of Richard Nixon, the only president ever to resign from office. The focus of the film is the under-the-radar investigation taking place during Nixon’s successful reelection campaign of 1972. Articles about the burglary and its aftermath are at first buried inside the Washington Post. Tenuous connections between the burglars and the White House raise suspicions, but it’s far from certain whether Bernstein and Woodward have big news to break. No one is willing to cooperate. Except, finally, a source named Deep Throat, a mysterious figure (identified in 2005 as W. Mark Felt, a top official at the FBI) who meets Woodward late at night in dark parking garages. He steers the reporters cautiously and warns them their lives are in danger. In the scenes with Deep Throat we get a glimpse of the machinations behind the scenes, the lengths that those in power will go to keep power and to cover up their tracks. Near the end we see Nixon at his second inauguration, the flickering image of the world’s most powerful man at the height of his power. The two reporters are at their desks, ignoring the television while they work. The real story would be coming in the newspaper, which day after day would build and build till soon the world would learn what it did know as it watched live that day. The film spares us scenes of all the legwork to come. The growing scandal, the indictments, the convictions, are summed up in a series of headlines that come across the news wire. It’s a startling and effective close to the story, with the final shot a close-up of a white sheet of paper, and on it written the message:
GERALD FORD TO BECOME 38TH PRESIDENT AT NOON TODAY
All the President’s Men is one of the best political thrillers to come out of Hollywood. It’s a true story and a famous one, and there’s no doubt about what happens in the end. But the virtue of the film is that so much is at stake. We get to be a witness to history and see the inside story as it unfolds.
The two stars, Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, deserve credit for their portrayals of Woodward and Bernstein, with Jason Robards their boss, editor Ben Bradlee, and Hal Holbrook perfectly cast as the shadowy Deep Throat. Redford was instrumental in getting the film made, having purchased the rights to the book, and Alan J. Pakula directed from a William Goldman script. All hit the target with exactly what was needed.
It is a film of its time, and a reminder of how the news business has changed over the years. The reporters in All the President’s Men had the benefit of some luck, but also the backing of the paper. The Washington Post took big risks in breaking the Watergate story. It’s hard to imagine reporters today having the same institutional support to take on White House. The news is a corporate-owned, star-driven business now, and those who make news and cover the news are in the same club. Watergate wasn’t the end of dirty tricks in high places, but the fourth estate is more likely now to look the other way. (Case in point: the Plame affair. I’ll take a look at the new film, Fair Game, later this month.)