Richard Nixon and the cinema of conspiracy
Spielberg's new film The Post, which acts as a prequel of sorts to All the President's Men, provides a timely reminder of the power of a free press in an era when those in authority once again want to destroy it
Frequent comparisons have been made of late between the 37th President of the United States and the current one. And while Richard Milhous Nixon might seem positively Jeffersonian in his comportment compared to Donald J Trump, he was a pretty dodgy character. Paranoid, resentful, pill-popping and prone to making drunk and maudlin phone calls in the dead of night, he bugged the offices of opponents, carpet-bombed Cambodia, helped install the butcher Pinochet in Chile and took a dim view of the fourth estate.
For Nixon, journalists were pests to be played when they could be useful, silenced by any means possible once their investigations became inconvenient. He would ultimately be undone by journalism, when two rookie Washington Post reporters triggered the Watergate scandal. But a few years before that, Nixon and his cronies went to war with the Post and the New York Times over the leaking of state papers connected to the war in Vietnam.
The Pentagon Papers, which were leaked to journalists by a disillusioned military analyst called Daniel Ellsberg, catalogued decades of shameful meddling in south-east Asia, and offered an assessment of the conflict that was totally at odds with official accounts. The documents contained a tacit admission that this was not a winnable war, and revealed that the whole escapade had been inspired by Washington's obsession with containing communist China.
It was The New York Times that broke this seismic story, but in Steven Spielberg's new film we find out how The Washington Post became a major national newspaper by defying political threats and publishing Pentagon Papers' findings after the Times had been injuncted.
The Post, which opens here on January 19, bristles with journalistic integrity and telling period detail, and stars Tom Hanks as Ben Bradlee, The Washington Post's dashing and daring editor. Bradlee would later nobble Nixon by exposing Watergate, but in 1971 he's fuming on the sidelines while his well-heeled colleagues in The New York Times unleash one of the biggest news stories since the end of World War II.
Bradlee wants in on the action, and is delighted when Post reporter Ben Bagdikian tracks down Daniel Ellsberg and gets a copy of the papers. By that point, Nixon and his attorney general had obtained a federal injunction ordering The New York Times to cease publication of any articles relating to the Pentagon Papers on the vague and spurious grounds that this ran contrary to the national interest. Meanwhile, Bradlee had them, was keen to seize his chance and was not about to be deterred by bullying phone calls from Nixon's flunkies. But there was a problem: The Post had just floated on the stock exchange, and nervous advisors warned the paper's publisher, Katharine 'Kay' Graham, that running the story would be disastrous for the company.
Meryl Streep plays Graham, a Washington socialite who in 1971 had only just taken over as publisher following her husband's suicide, and was more used to hosting society parties than making editorial decisions. But Bradlee was asking her to make a big one. The entire notion of free speech was being challenged by the Nixon administration, and while publishing might be risky, not doing so would set a dreadful precedent.
It's a very fine film, rousing and timely, and Spielberg ends it on the night of June 17, 1972, when torchlight flickers on the upper floors of the Watergate building in offices occupied by the Democratic National Committee. Those burglars had close ties with the Nixon administration, and The Post finishes at precisely the point where another celebrated political conspiracy thriller begins.
All the President's Men is one of the greatest thrillers ever made, and Spielberg's Post could be seen as a kind of prequel, and companion piece. Both films depict journalism as the people's watchdog, an enemy of political tyranny, and celebrate the grimy glamour of tenacious reporting. Impressively, All the President's Men highlighted the monotony of the endless phone calls and door-stepping investigative reporting involves without ever becoming boring itself. And as it was made just two years after Nixon's resignation, it represented a legal minefield for its producers.
Although Alan J Pakula directed it, and William Goldman wrote the screenplay, All the President's Men was more Robert Redford's film than anyone else's - without him, it would never have happened. Before Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein had even begun writing their book about the Watergate investigations, Redford had expressed an interest in adapting it. He spent $400,000 of his own money (the equivalent of $2m today) buying the rights, and his star power was enough to convince Warner Brothers to back the project.
Meanwhile, back at The Washington Post, Bradlee and Graham were not thrilled about the idea of Hollywood turning their greatest journalistic triumph into a feature film. Redford's involvement mollified them: by that point his left-leaning political engagement was well known, and Bradlee sensibly reasoned that it would be better to cooperate and have some influence on its tone than stand aside and have no say at all. Redford, cast as Woodward, worried that his well-known face would damage the veracity of the project, and realised that an equally famous actor would need to play Bernstein. Dustin Hoffman was the obvious choice, and he and Redford promptly descended on The Post to soak up the newsroom atmosphere.
They stayed there for weeks on end, sitting in on editorial meetings and picking the real Woodward and Bernstein's brains. But Bradlee drew the line at Redford and co using his newsroom as a film set, and so an exact replica was constructed in a Burbank studio, with bins full of actual Washington Post refuse to add to the authenticity.
While everyone agreed that Woodward was helpful, Bernstein was trickier. And when Redford showed the first draft of Goldman's screenplay to Bernstein, he and his then girlfriend Nora Ephron wrote a version of their own, which apparently rather aggrandised Bernstein's persona and appeal to women, and was promptly rejected by Redford.
He and Pakula spent long hours tinkering with the script, but the finished result was very much Goldman's, who later said he would have run a mile if he realised how much interference he'd have to tolerate.
But working on a film based on recent and very controversial events was always going to be fraught: lawyers pored over every word, and Goldman, Pakula and Redford exhaustively interviewed reporters and other participants in the actual investigation to make sure they got everything exactly right. The activities of Woodward and Bernstein's elusive source, 'Deep Throat', was particularly intriguing. He was played in the film by a shadowy Hal Holbrook, and his famous phrase "follow the money" was invented by Goldman, and never uttered by the real government source.
Woodward and others kept his identity secret, and it would be 30 years before FBI associate director Mark Felt was revealed as their invaluable informant.
The finished film, which was over two hours long and featured a lot of talk and hardly any action, could so easily have been worthy, and tedious. Instead it was brooding, tense, relentlessly gripping: somehow, Goldman and Pakula managed to make the painstaking, grubby and tiresome business of reporting seem fascinating, even noble. Because as All the President's Men made clear, if Woodward, Bernstein and their swashbuckling editor Bradlee hadn't doggedly pursued that trail of breadcrumbs around Washington, Nixon and his henchmen might have got away with it.
In The Post, Steven Spielberg uses the quaint paraphernalia of typewriters and hot metal to eulogise the virtues, and necessity, of a free press. In America, the fourth estate is under attack as never before, from a president who knows that rigorous journalism is the only thing likely to hold his worst excesses in check.
Nixon once thought he could cow and control the media by bullying editors and banning publications from his press briefings: Donald Trump should take note of what happened next.
5 OF THE BEST FILMS ABOUT NEWSPAPERS
His Girl Friday (1940)
Witty and wise screwball comedy starring Cary Grant as a hard-boiled tabloid editor who schemes to prevent his star reporter and ex-wife Rosaland Russell from getting married. A classic.
Citizen Kane (1941)
Orson Welles' epic account of a fictional newspaper baron's life was inspired by the exploits of media mogul Randolph Hearst and is built around a reporter's efforts to find out who Charles Foster Kane really was.
Woman of the Year (1942)
The first of nine films Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn made together, George Stevens' sparkling comedy tells the story of two writers who fall in love. She's an intellectual columnist, he's a sports reporter, and they don't see eye to eye.
Ace in the Hole (1951)
If you take a dim view of journalists, your worst prejudices will be confirmed by Billy Wilder's hard-hitting classic, which stars Kirk Douglas as an unscrupulous reporter who delays the rescue of a man trapped in a desert cave so he can fully capitalise on the story.
Tom McCarthy's perfectly judged drama is based on the Boston Globe's exposure of decades of clerical abuse. Michael Keaton plays 'Robby' Robinson, the Globe editor who oversaw an arduous investigation that faced resistance at every turn.