An Irishman's Diary: All the president’s plot-spoilers

An Irishman’s Diary about the 40th anniversary of Watergate’s denouement

 ‘An impending milestone in literary and cinematic history  commemorates an era when plot-spoiling must have been less of an issue than it is today. I refer to the publication, 40 years ago this summer, of All the President’s Men.’ Above, Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman  who  portrayed Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in All the President’s Men. Photograph:  Warner Bros/Getty Images

‘An impending milestone in literary and cinematic history commemorates an era when plot-spoiling must have been less of an issue than it is today. I refer to the publication, 40 years ago this summer, of All the President’s Men.’ Above, Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman who portrayed Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in All the President’s Men. Photograph: Warner Bros/Getty Images

Thu, Jan 30, 2014, 14:47

I know what Donald Clarke meant when he complained recently about the modern movie-goer’s obsession with avoiding plot-spoilers – an occupational hazard for film reviewers like him.

I’ve run foul of it myself on occasion, notably when watching the entire five-season run of The Wire on BBC 2 a few years ago and then writing about its greatest moments, oblivious (but not for long) to the fact many people were still going through it on box sets and hadn’t yet reached the unforgettable sequence wherein Stringer Bell and Avon Barksdale . . . well, you’ll know if you’ve seen it.

In any case, the subject reminds me of an impending milestone in literary and cinematic history: one that commemorates an era when plot-spoiling must have been less of an issue than it is today. I refer to the publication, 40 years ago this summer, of All the President’s Men.

There must by now be quite a few young people out there who don’t know how that book ended, never mind how it began. At the time, however, the plot-line had been extremely well aired, even to people who still hadn’t heard of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.

This wasn’t a problem for the book, in which detail was everything. (I read it once and was completely absorbed, although about the only thing I can remember from it now was Bernstein breaking it gently to Woodward that writing wasn’t his (Woodward’s) strong-point, and that he should leave that part of the work to him).

But when it came to making a film, clearly, the audience’s familiarity with the subject was a big problem. It threatened to be like the Titanic movie in reverse. In this case, the inevitability of the heroes’ triumph would rob the film of any drama, and not even a Mills and Boon sub-theme could help.

The film’s scriptwriter, William Goldman, who was also struggling with the sheer weight of detail, wrestled with the drama deficit for a long time too. Then he devised a radical solution. In his own phrase, he would: “throw away the last half of the book”. In other words, instead of being about a triumph, the film would be about a struggle.

And sure enough, in the movie version of All the President’s Men, the dramatic climax is a moment of failure, when the reporters make their biggest mistake, almost letting the White House off the hook and, amid the resultant depression and paranoia, getting their backsides kicked by an angry editor.

In the event, the mistake cost them nothing except a loss of momentum. But in the film’s brilliantly understated conclusion, it’s left to the audience to supply the reporters’ vindication, with a teleprinter providing prompts about dates and names.

Combined with brilliant directing and a superlative cast, the strategy turned a story everybody knew into a work of gripping suspense. A classic of 20th-century cinema, All the President’s Men was enjoyed almost equally by critics and audiences. On the online review aggregator, Rotten Tomatoes, the respective approval ratings are 98 and 92 per cent.

Mind you, one of Goldman’s other worries when scripting the film was the nature of that audience. Since the film concerned the media, he knew, every columnist and commentator would see it and have strong opinions about its veracity. As he put it: “If we ‘Hollywooded it up’ – ie put in dancing girls – there was no way they would take it kindly.”

So, although the editors of the Washington Post apparently hated the jokes he had them telling at their daily news conferences, the film takes few dramatic liberties with the profession. An exception is a scene where Bernstein outwits a guard-dog secretary to get an interview with her boss, using the rat-like cunning journalists always have in movies.

It didn’t happen in reality. And as Goldman points out in his autobiography, this “phony Hollywood moment” was provided not by him (although he happily admits to being a licensed supplier of such moments) but by Bernstein and his romantic partner, the writer Nora Ephron. The scene is the sole survivor in the finished work of a revised script the pair produced behind his back, one of many annoyances Goldman endured during the tortuous process of writing the film.

It must indeed have been a traumatic experience. He won the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. And the film was a huge success, generally. Despite which, in his memoir, Goldman asks himself what he would change if had his movie career to live over again and suggests there’s only one thing: “I wouldn’t have come near All the President’s Men.”

fmcnally@irishtimes.com

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