All the President's Men vs. The Post

With Donald Trump now officially the third US president to be impeached, here’s a look at two movies that focused on events which came close to making him the fourth. Both of these films involve journalists from the Washington Post going up against the Nixon White House as they discover and eventually make information public which would eventually lead to Nixon becoming the first United States president to resign in order to avoid impeachment.

So, which is better? Let’s find out.

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All the President’s Men (1976)

This film, directed by Alan J. Pakula and based on the book of the same name by Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, begins with security guard Frank Wills (played by Wills himself) reporting that the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate complex in Washington D.C. has been broken into. Five men have been arrested, and the Post sends Woodward (Robert Redford) to cover the story.

At the arraignment of the five men, one of the accused (Richard Herd) informs Woodward that he and his four accomplices were all connected to the CIA. Investigating further, Woodward discovers the five are connected to Nixon’s White House Counsel. Although Woodward’s boss and editor Ben Bradlee (Jason Robards) doesn’t think the story is front page-worthy, he assigns Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) to work with Woodward further on this.

Woodward goes to a parking garage and makes contact with his old acquaintance, who only goes by “Deep Throat” (Hal Holbrook). He cryptically informs Woodward to “follow the money”.

Soon, Woodward and Bernstein link the Watergate quintet to campaign contributions to Nixon’s re-election committee. But Bradlee still has his doubts, as Nixon was expected to easily defeat George McGovern in the 1972 election anyway.

The two reporters question Nixon’s former re-election treasurer Hugh Sloan (Stephen Collins) and learn that thousands of dollars were given to Nixon’s Chief of Staff and that the campaign was financing efforts to sabotage Democratic candidates well before the Watergate incident. This, and the White House’s subsequent denial of these events, prompt Bradlee to tell Woodward and Bernstein to keep digging.

Meeting with Deep Throat again, Woodward is told that Nixon’s Chief of Staff thought up the break-in and subsequent cover-up, which was also meant to cover the asses of both the CIA and FBI. Although Deep Throat tells Woodward that he and Bernstein are now targets, the duo, with Bradlee’s support, type out the full story just as Nixon is inaugurated again. The film ends with subsequent headlines announcing the cover-up and Nixon’s resignation.

The Post (2017)

This movie, directed by Steven Spielberg, begins in Vietnam in 1966. Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) is a military analyst observing the troops and even getting a taste of combat as he accompanies troops into the jungle. On the subsequent plane ride home, Ellsberg tells Defense Secretary Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood) that there’s no sign of improvement regarding the military situation in Vietnam. However, upon landing, McNamara tells the press that everything is going smoothly. A few years later, Ellsberg clandestinely obtains and copies numerous documents about the Vietnam situation, soon to be known as the Pentagon Papers, which go back to Truman’s time in the Oval Office.

In 1971, Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep) is adjusting to her new role as the owner and publisher of the Washington Post. As she attempts to enact methods to help the paper financially, she finds she’s often at odds with both board member Arthur Parsons (Bradley Whitford) and the Post’s editor Ben Bradlee (previously played by Jason Robards, here played by Tom Hanks).

On top of that, Graham meets up with McNamara, who’s an old friend. He informs her that Ellsberg has given copies of the documents he obtained to the New York Times, along with other information. This results in anti-war protests intensifying. While Graham and Bradlee are angry that the Times is a step ahead of the Post, a subsequent court injunction prohibiting further articles on the matter puts them at ease.

Bradlee’s assistant Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk) eventually tracks down Ellsberg, whom he previously worked with. Ellsberg gives him the crapton of documents he copied, which Bagdikian quickly takes to Bradlee’s home. They and other Post reporters are soon pouring over all the pages, piecing the elaborate, decades-long deception together. But Parsons strongly advises not to publish the findings because the Nixon White House could easily retaliate and send them all to jail. Graham is also conflicted about doing so because of her friendship with McNamara, as is Bradlee upon learning that his late friend JFK was in the know about this deception as well.

Despite the legal challenges that are now coming her way, Graham gives Bradlee the go-ahead to publish the findings. Nixon’s retaliation leads to both the Post and the Times appearing before the Supreme Court, while other newspapers begin taking a cue from Graham. The court ends up ruling in favor of the Post and the Times, making Graham a hero in the eyes of many, and prompting Nixon to ban the Post from the White House.

The film ends with security guard Frank Wills (previously played by Wills himself, and here played by JaQwan J. Kelly) reporting a possible break-in at the Watergate complex.

Which is better?

If I had to give the edge to either film, it would be All the President’s Men. This may be because it was released first and less than two years after Nixon’s resignation. Hence, the effect of this complicated series of events regarding a war most of the American public had turned against by the start of the ’70s was still fresh in people’s minds. The film also benefits from a great cast and tense moments. This is all the more remarkable as there isn’t much action or bloodshed in this picture. The movie would go onto win four Oscars, including awards for Robards as well as William Goldman’s screenplay.

But this is not to say that The Post doesn’t have its good points. Like All the President’s Men, it has a great cast and Spielberg’s behind the scenes triumvirate of Michael Kahn (editing), Janusz Kaminski (cinematography) and John Williams (music) do their usual great jobs. One could also say that the ending nicely segues into the beginning of Pakula’s film, the same way that the ending of Rogue One segued nicely into the beginning of the original Star Wars film.

But The Post, which was dedicated to the late journalist/filmmaker Nora Ephron (who previously worked with both Streep and Hanks and was a neighbor of Spielberg’s), is actually more of a character study than a straight thriller like Pakula’s film. Despite Hanks’ above-the-title billing, his Bradlee, like Robards’, is essentially a supporting player, as Streep’s Graham is the center of the story. She must contend with holding her own as an executive in what was, at the time, a male-dominated field, while simultaneously facing the strong possibility of ruining the legacy left to her by her father and her late husband as she takes on the highest levels of government.

Just as Pakula’s film was released while the country was recovering from Watergate, Spielberg’s came out just as Trump was making noise about what the press was saying about him. Like Nixon, Trump is known for bitching about “fake news”, with probably the only difference being that Nixon didn’t have Twitter at his disposal. Regardless of what happens next with Trump’s current drama, both these films are wonderfully crafted dramas which should be required viewing for anyone interested in looking at a career in journalism.

Rob Kirchgassner

Rob is a blogger, critic, and author. His latest novel is The Thoughts of a Proud Nerd: A Story of Hope, available now from Amazon.

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  • Versimancer

    I pretty much forgot Hanks was in The Post, but remember Meryl. Well, I hope he wins this year, nearly twenty after being nominated for talking to a volleyball for almost three hours.

  • Abbie’s Dad

    Fun fact/coincidence: Nora Ephron was married to Carl Bernstein for a few years.