W. Joseph Campbell

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WaPo on ‘historically faulty’ films: Ignoring ATPM

In Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Newspapers, Reviews, Washington Post, Watergate myth on February 27, 2011 at 8:26 am


Today’s Washington Post offers an insightful commentary about movies that won best-picture Oscars despite having taken liberties with historical truth.

The commentary notes that this year’s favorite for best picture, The King’s Speech, “won’t win any awards for historical accuracy.

“King George VI didn’t really stammer that badly, we’ve been told. Critics have also pointed out that Winston Churchill didn’t actually think it necessary for the king’s brother, Edward VIII, to abdicate the throne before marrying a divorced woman. We’ve also learned that Churchill was not nearly as fat as Timothy Spall portrays him … and that King George was far too plain and short to be played by the tall, handsome Colin Firth.”

What’s more, the Post notes:

“The Oscar voters have often favored historically faulty movies, with the inaccuracies ranging from minor details to outright fiction. In ‘Patton,’ 1970’s Best Picture, Axis and Allied powers fought each other in the same kind of tanks — American ones, manufactured after the war. ‘Braveheart’ in 1995 put Mel Gibson in a kilt, even though his character, William Wallace, was a lowland Scot (and only highlanders wore kilts).”

Good stuff.

Surely it’s not churlish to call out the Post for failing to include All the President’s Men in the discussion about historical inaccuracy in movie-making — even if All the President’s Men (or ATPM) didn’t win the best picture Oscar for the year in which it was released.

Rocky did.

All the President’s Men of course was a 1976 film about the Washington Post and its Watergate investigation, starring those dogged reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. It won four Oscars, including best supporting actor, for Jason Robards’ role as the Post executive editor, Ben Bradlee.

The movie — which was based on Woodward and Bernstein’s 1974 book by the same title — distorted, stretched, and otherwise toyed with historical accuracy in several ways, namely:

  • It embraced and solidified the mythical heroic-journalist interpretation of Watergate.
  • It minimized, even denigrated, the decisive contributions of investigative agencies in unraveling the crimes of Watergate.
  • It depicted Woodward and Bernstein as facing dangers far greater than they really encountered.
  • It introduced into the vernacular the made-up line, “follow the money,” which many people believe was advice crucial to uncovering the scandal.

Let’s examine those points in turn.

As I discuss in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, the cinematic version of All the President’s Men promoted the misleading interpretation that Woodward and Bernstein’s reporting was decisive in uncovering the crimes of Watergate and forcing the resignation of President Richard Nixon.

I write in Getting It Wrong:

All the President’s Men allows no other interpretation: It was the work Woodward and Bernstein that set in motion far-reaching effects that brought about the first-ever resignation of a U.S. president.”

I also note:

“To an extent far greater than the book, the cinematic version of All the President’s Men placed Woodward and Bernstein at the center of Watergate’s unraveling while denigrating the efforts of investigative agencies such as the FBI. The effect was to solidify and elevate the heroic-journalist myth, giving it dramatic power, and sustaining it in the collective memory.”

To roll up a scandal of the dimensions of Watergate, I point out in Getting It Wrong, “required the collective if not always the coordinated forces of special prosecutors, federal judges, both houses of Congress, the Supreme Court, as well as the Justice Department and the FBI.

“Even then,” I add, “Nixon likely would have served out his term if not for the audiotape recordings he secretly made of most conversations in the Oval Office of the White House. Only when compelled by the Supreme Court did Nixon surrender those recordings, which captured him” plotting to cover up the signal crime of Watergate — the 1972 break-in at headquarters of the Democratic National Committee.

The cinematic version of All the President’s Men includes few references to subpoena-wielding agencies and congressional panels that broke open the scandal.

In addition, the movie excessively dramatizes the risks and hazards to which Woodward and Bernstein were exposed in their Watergate reporting.

In a  scene near the close of the movie, Woodward’s shadowy, high-level source “Deep Throat” — superbly played by Hal Holbrook — says the reporters’ “lives are in danger.”

The warning, which injected drama into the movie’s sometimes-leaden pacing, also was mentioned in All the President’s Men the book.

But it was fairly quickly recognized to have been a false alarm.

For a while, Woodward, Bernstein, and senior Post editors took precautions to avoid what they suspected was electronic surveillance. But as Woodward recounted in his book The Secret Man, such measures “soon seemed melodramatic and unnecessary.

“We never found any evidence that our phones were tapped or that anyone’s life was in danger,” Woodward added.

The Holbrook/”Deep Throat” character in All the President’s Men pressed into the vernacular what may be Watergate’s most famous line — “follow the money.”

The line does not appear in Woodward and Bernstein’s book. Nor was it spoken in real life by the stealthy “Deep Throat,” whose identity was kept secret for more than 30 years. (In 2005, the former second-ranking official at the FBI, W. Mark Felt, disclosed that he had been Woodward’s high-level source.)

“Follow the money” was worked into the script of All the President’s Men by the screenwriter, William Goldman.

The Holbrook/”Deep Throat” character delivered the line  with such quiet authority that it’s not difficult to understand how “follow the money” crossed from the silver  screen to the vernacular, how the phrase has been widely embraced not only as plausible but understood as guidance that had been invaluable.

As I’ve noted, however, Watergate was far more complex than a matter of identifying, pursuing, and describing a money trail.

The best cinematic antidote to All the President’s Men has to be the 1999 spoof Dick, which includes an amusing if over-the-top skewering of Woodward and Bernstein as klutzy, antagonistic, and ultimately very lucky.

Dick the movie won no Oscars. But it’s great fun, and deserves to be seen more widely than it was in 1999.


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