After a month of voting, you readers, have decided that of all the films ever set in Washington since the dawn of the medium, All the President’s Men—Alan Pakula‘s 1976 adaptation of the Washington Post’s reporting on the 1972 break-in at the Watergate complex—is the “most Washington” of them all. In ways, the movie is plenty deserving: Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman gave memorable performances as Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, respectively, Jason Robards won an Oscar for his portrayal of Ben Bradlee, and the film lives on as a canonical part of high-school journalism syllabi. You may even be citing the movie as inspiration right now, as you sit at your desk putting together an adorable listicle of dogs that don’t understand that they’re not people.
The final match, between All the President’s Men and Thank You for Smoking, pitted films from two different eras with a similar theme: the intersection of politics, power, and money. All the President’s Men was, according to its one-sheet, “the most devastating detective story of this century.” Thank You for Smoking, released in the current century, remains a cutting, if not classic, satire of contemporary influence peddling.
There’s only one problem with All the President’s Men winning: as enduring as it is, its message is a load of hogwash. That’s what W. Joseph Campbell, a professor at American University’s School of Communication and a longtime critic of Watergate mythmaking, says.
“The dominant narrative of Watergate is that the dogged reporting brought down Nixon’s corrupt presidency,” Campbell tells Washingtonian. “It ignores, omits and overlooks the contributions of many other actors and forces that were at work on this scandal, including the investigators who had subpoena power. Special prosecutors, FBI, grand juries, Judge [John] Sirica, both houses of Congress, and ulitmately the Supreme Court that forced Nixon to hand over the tapes.”
Without those tapes, which contained President Nixon authorizing payments to the perpetrators June 1972 break-in of the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters, Campbell says it’s very likely Nixon might have skated. The movie version of All the President’s Men doesn’t get into the tapes, or focus much on the characters who figured into the Nixon Administration’s undoing, like John Dean, Martha Mitchell, and H.R. Haldeman (outside of a few passing references).
Even someone who figured in All the President’s Men disputed the paper’s importance over the years. “It must be remembered that Nixon got Nixon,” Bradlee said in 1997, a quote that, Campbell notes, was largely ignored when the longtime Post executive editor died last year. Woodward, speaking to the American Journalism Review in 2004, put it even more bluntly: “To say that the press brought down Nixon, that’s horseshit.”
So why does the hero-journalist myth persist? The timing was exquisite. The book All the President’s Men hit shelves in June 1974, two months before Nixon resigned, and stayed on best-seller lists for most of that year, getting another bump when President Ford pardoned Nixon. And even though the Woodward and Bernstein book was stuffed with all the details the movie would later omit, its almost novelistic tone made for an easy Hollywood adaptation (by William Goldman, who also wrote Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Princess Bride). There’s also the simple fact that the movie reached far more people than those who read the book.
“The movie just strips away all the other actors and focuses exclusively on Woodward and Bernstein and the Washington Post,” says Campbell. “It makes the investigation seem far more dangerous than it actually was. That’s misleading. ‘Follow the money’: It was never actually said in real life. It’s one of these movie lines.”
Campbell wishes a different Watergate adaptation had made it all the way in our bracket.
“My choice would have been Dick,” Campbell says, referring to the 1999 comedy in which a pair of ditzy high-school students played by Kirsten Dunst and Michelle Williams stumble upon the Watergate burglary and Woodward and Bernstein are reduced to impish office rivals. “It’s a great send-up. Unfortunately, I think it was one of those movies that didn’t attract the audience the critics thought it deserved. It does not perpetuate the myth that All the President’s Men does.”
Dick, though, didn’t even make it out of the first round, where it was knocked off by Oliver Stone‘s Nixon, a meandering biopic Campbell calls “horrible.” Still, even if Dick had made it, it very likely would have fallen to the buzzsaw that All the President’s Men has been this whole time.
In fact, the fix might have even been in long before this bracket launched. Back in June 1976, when Washingtonian still reviewed movies, Frank Turaj’s lede sealed it:
All the President’s Men will be assessed and reassessed, now on its own terms, later in the context of the imitations to follow. There may be an All the President’s Men II; there certainly will be other films on the subject. By and by there will come learned dissertations, God forbid.
Why? Because this is the best “Washington movie” ever made, and it is not without significance that it is also about journalism.
Correction: A previous version of this article stated Ben Bradlee called the narrative that the media brought down Nixon “horseshit.” The quote was from Bob Woodward.