Newspapers… remember them? Those flimsy pieces of newsprint that give you the top stories every day? Yeah, we still got ’em, but did you ever think about what goes into the source material that you read? Hmmm? Well, here’s the true story of The Washington Post newspaper, the Vietnam War, and our First Amendment rights.
It’s 1971, and the war in Vietnam is still raging on. But some people in the White House really hated the cover-up that was being perpetrating on the American people. One such man is U.S. military analyst Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) who, sick of the lies, steals top secret classified files from the military and made copies, sending a small portion of them to the major New York Times newspaper. The Times, hot for the story, publishes the story, but is immediately hit with a ‘cease and desist’ order from President Nixon.
Meanwhile, over at the lesser Washington Post newspaper, things have been very busy. The new owner, Katherine ‘Kay’ Graham (Meryl Streep), has just made a deal to have the Post go public with the New York Stock Exchange. But being a woman, she’s not exactly taken seriously (remember, this was the early 70’s), fortunately Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), her hard-driven editor, is her best friend. After the turmoil at the N.Y. Times spills over, the Post receives a few of the Pentagon Papers, an early Christmas gift if ever there was one! Investigative reporter, Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk), does his research and sniffs out Ellsberg and the remaining 4000 damning papers.
NOW the Post is sitting on the biggest bombshell in the history (at that time) of journa- lism. They have proof that, amongst other things, our U.S. presidents from Truman to Nixon kept troops in Vietnam simply because we didn’t want to appear weak! The only problem is, IF they print and reveal all of this to the public, it could mean trouble. BIG trouble! How big? Oh, how about indictments, prison terms, the shareholders pulling out, and the Post going bankrupt! Do they bury THE most important story of the century or tell the world?
Sides are drawn, tensions are mounting, and the papers deadline is closing fast. The Pentagon Paper’s author, Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood), is scared and begs Kay not to publish, editor Ben is all for it and sites the Post’s “integrity and quality”, the shareholders are threatening, and it all comes down to Kay and her decision. No pressure, no pressure at all! If you remember your history class, you know what happens next and the unbelievable Supreme Court decision that followed, but none of that matters, as all this still evokes nail-biting.
With a screenplay written by first-time writer Liz Hannah and TV-writer John Singer (Fringe, Law and Order), the verbal banter and action is very TV-orientated, not that that is a bad thing, given to some other director. But you have Steven Spielberg at the helm here, and he elevates the script to the movie’s majesty that it is. Just like All The President’s Men, the power of the press is put to the test in this character-driven movie with Steep and Hanks putting forth their best performances. Starting off slow, the film moves along at an even pace, showing you not only the inner workings of a newspaper, but the tumultuous, even shady backroom dealings that go along with it.
As with all “based on a true story” movies, which are never as good as the REAL deal, this Hollywood-ized version of the actual events (check out Wikipedia) is about as good as it gets. A gripping meat ‘n’ potatoes script with very little potatoes; just a pure boiled-down story and fine acting to its core values. Sure, you have your ‘cutsie’ moments thrown in for crowd pleasers, but the importance of the story is there with the actors fully committing to it, making this timeless historical piece gripping to watch, even though you already know the outcome. You also have to give kudos to the production design team and costumers for the terrific period props, sets, and clothing. It all looks exceptional!
All The President’s Men (1976)
Another reporter, Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman), is reluctantly assigned with Woodward and together they start their investigation into one of the biggest cover-up in U.S. history. But before they can tell the world in print, they’ll need proof AND a reliable source, so says their boss, executive editor Ben Bradlee (Jason Robards). Soon, Woodward makes contact with a mysterious figure in an underground parking garage known only as “Deep Throat” (Hal Holbrook). Deep’s advice? Follow the money! Which is exactly what they do. Connecting the financial dots, they find the campaign contribution funds to re-elect the president were actually going towards the paychecks of the ‘burglars’.
There’s more digging, denial, phone calls, threats, and falling deeper into the rabbits hole the more they investigate. Finally, Deep Throat reveals that White House Chief of Staff, H. R. Haldeman masterminded the Watergate break-in and cover-up. He also states that the cover-up was not just to camouflage the money, but to hide “covert operations” involving “the entire U.S. intelligence community”, including the FBI and CIA. Yikes! He warns Woodward and Bernstein that their lives are in danger. When the two relay this to Bradlee, he urges them to carry on despite the risk from Nixon’s re-election goons.
With their proof and source, they start to type up the story while a television has Nixon taking the oath of office for his second term as President. A montage of Watergate-related teletype headlines from the following year is shown, ending with Nixon’s resignation. And all because of these these two guys, Woodward & Bernstein. William Goldman won an Oscar for his screenplay, while the movie amassed a slew of other awards. Riveting, exciting, and historically fascinating, Redford and Hoffman make the ultimate odd couple (just like a latter-day Mulder & Fox) while famed director Alan J. Pakula kicked serious butt.
Oddly enough, it was Redford that bought the rights to Woodward & Bernstein book and hired Goldman to adapt the screenplay from it, not the producer or the studios. Redford, adamant that the authenticity and flavor be kept in the script, consulted the real Bob Woodward (who helped) and Carl Bernstein (who did NOT help) for their expertise in filling in the blanks. Goldman even had his girlfriend (writer Nora Efron) add some creative input at the time, as well as Redford, who did some re-writes.