Tag Archives: All the President’s Men

All the Mayor’s Men

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The Rob Fordpocalypse unfolding this week is a vindication for the forces of investigative journalism, a welcome throwback to the days of Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite, when the news was granted unwavering trust.  In the modern age of political polarization, Rupert Murdoch and Fox, every story is treated first with skepticism, with immediate questions about the legitimacy and bias of the source.  Such questions aside, the problem is that it’s often the media’s job to say things about people that those people are not necessarily going to like, and those people are going to fight back with every resource they can muster.  But before the Internet, if you disagreed with a reporter’s take on you, you had to attempt to return fire on their turf, and few could dent the veneer of infallibility possessed by Murrow and Cronkite et al.  The notorious Senator Joseph McCarthy tumbled from grace largely due to Murrow’s relentless attacks on him.  When instead those traditional media outlets find themselves on an equal playing field with every wag with a laptop and a WordPress account (not unaware of the irony am I), the old adage about refraining from picking a fight with folk who buy ink by the barrel no longer applies.  A breaking news story is no longer the last word, it’s the start of an extended argument of attrition, as confirmation bias leads people to avoid reading what doesn’t reinforce their worldview and doubting with venom anything that challenges them.  Rob Ford’s supporters don’t care that he has a drug problem or that he associates with characters under criminal investigation.  He’s keeping taxes low!  He’s fighting the gravy train!  Na-na-na-na-I-can’t-hear-you!  They repeat the meme ad nauseum and haul reporters in front of the Press Council for being mean to their standard bearer.  Hammered relentlessly, the press soldiers on, the truth their dim light in the fog, wondering if they’d be happier filing fluff about quilting bees.

Hmm.  Where have we seen this movie before?

All the President’s Men (1976) is one of the finest cinematic portrayals of the kind of crack (pun intended) investigative journalism that led to this past week’s revelations – a gritty, non-glamorous depiction of the work of Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) as they worked to piece together the scandal that began with the break-in at Democratic National Headquarters at the Watergate hotel and eventually led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon.  It is a thriller that eschews thriller conventions but remains gripping from start to finish simply because it is all true.  The movie begins, appropriately, with the tremendously overamplified sound of typewriter keys striking blank paper – a metaphor for the rifle-like ability of a big news story to upend the world.  And what follows would be unlikely to make it out of the scripting stages today – extended scenes of Woodward and Bernstein working the phones, probing reluctant sources with skilled questions, cracking under the pressure of editor Ben Bradlee (Jason Robards) to bring him something he can publish.  (One can imagine a modern studio executive demanding more car chases and perhaps inserting a plucky office assistant character with big boobs for the duo to leer at.)  The dialogue is ripe with lasting tropes like “follow the money” and “non-denial denials,” terms that remain as applicable in 2013 as they did nearly 40 years ago.  Indeed, the image of Toronto Star reporters sitting in a car with drug dealers to view the famous Ford video evokes Woodward in his parking garage waiting to meet up with Deep Throat.

After Gawker and the Star broke the Ford video story back in May, “Ford Nation,” like Nixon’s silent majority before it, went to work trying to discredit them, with comment boards flooded with enough vitriol to embarrass a Klan rally.  The Star, like the Post before it, stood by its story, even as time wore on and the fabled video failed to materialize, leading even the most ardent Ford opponents to believe that perhaps there was no there there.  (A common rumor suggested that Ford’s people had acquired and managed to destroy it.)  All the President’s Men winds to a conclusion as Woodward and Bernstein “shoot too high and miss” – implicating Nixon’s chief of staff H.R. Haldeman in the Watergate coverup without solid proof and perhaps fatally jeopardizing the reputation of their newspaper.  They are ultimately able to correct their mistake, but not before a dressing down on Bradlee’s front lawn in the middle of the night, where the cynical old newsman remarks, “Have you seen the latest poll?  Half the country never even heard of Watergate.  Nobody gives a shit.”  Forum Research released a poll indicating that since Toronto Police Chief Blair’s fateful announcement, Ford’s popularity had risen five points.

There is no future, only the past happening over and over again.

Woodward and Bernstein get back to work, typewriters hammering away over the sound of Nixon triumphant in his re-election, before a series of teletype headlines reveal the fate of the major players, with one Nixon confederate after another sentenced to prison or forced to step aside before the big dog is finally brought down.  Mayor Ford’s mea culpa of yesterday, offered with a determination to stay in office in the face of every major Canadian daily calling for his resignation, can be seen as a calculated move designed to wait out a fickle public whose attention span is only as long as it takes to click over to a story about Miley Cyrus and sideboob.  But we’re seeing the same story play out in a repetition of subconscious themes ingrained in our collective memories that would impress Joseph Campbell.  And we know how it ends – or at least, how it’s supposed to end.  The only difference is that Robert Redford is too old now to play Robyn Doolittle.

The human factor: Game Change

Ed Harris as John McCain and Julianne Moore as Sarah Palin in Game Change.

When Aaron Sorkin was first developing The West Wing, he was advised repeatedly that shows about politics don’t work.  It’s one of the more interesting ironies that even though pundits are fond of dismissing political machinations as “inside the beltway” minutiae that make no difference to the lives of ordinary people, political stories, whether they are Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, All the President’s Men or JFK, are among the most compelling dramas out there.  Why, might one ask?  There is something Shakespearean in narratives set amidst the pursuit of, or the exercise of high office – they are our latter-day tales of the courts of kings and queens.  In fact, Game of Thrones, HBO’s award-winning fantasy series, wins praise not for its dragons and magic and special effects but for the plights of its very human characters caught up in the drive for political power.  Indeed, “HBO” and “Game” would seem to be a winning combination, as exemplified by the premiere this past weekend of Game Change, the Jay Roach-directed story of the McCain-Palin presidential campaign of 2008.  In today’s climate it’s difficult to put politics aside when looking at a movie like this, but the script (by former Buffy the Vampire Slayer actor-turned-writer Danny Strong, who also wrote Recount) jettisons ideology to a large extent.  You don’t really get the sense from the movie of what McCain and Palin were running on or how they differed from the successful Democratic ticket.  The story focuses instead on what made The West Wing and the best political movies work – the human element.

You don’t have to agree, even slightly, with the positions of John McCain or Sarah Palin to enjoy this movie – you can be the staunchest, conservative-loathing left-winger and still relate to the weary McCain’s fading hopes to be President, the suddenly infamous Palin’s desire to prove herself on a national stage and seasoned advisor Steve Schmidt’s drive to win.  There is an honour to these people when viewed in their private moments (fictionalized as they may be here) and a humanity that we come to realize is stripped away under the lens of 24-hour news coverage, rendering them less people than caricatures defined at the whims of others.  The sublimely talented Julianne Moore is an eerie dead ringer for the infamous Alaskan governor, nailing her look, her movement and her oft-imitated voice, and showing us what made average people gravitate to her in the first place.  It was easy to snicker at Tina Fey’s “I can see Russia from my house” line back in the day; much less so to see the film’s Palin experiencing being pilloried night after night to raucous laughter.  The always watchable Woody Harrelson is excellent as Schmidt, who is instrumental in getting Palin on the ticket over McCain’s initial preference of Joe Lieberman, and who watches like Doctor Frankenstein as his “creation” spirals out of control, only to try and salvage what he can of the party as the campaign begins to go off the rails.  In one of the final scenes, as he angrily tells Palin she will not be allowed to give her own concession speech on election night, he has come full circle, a believer in and defender of the traditions of American democracy, after living the consequences of trying to win through cynical political calculations alone.

Asked by Anderson Cooper at the end whether he would have put Palin on the ticket had he the chance to make a different choice, Schmidt only comments with resignation that in life, you do not get do-overs.  As the real-life Sarah Palin maintains her public presence and muses to the press about jumping into the 2012 Republican race should Mitt Romney not achieve a solid lock on their nomination, the ultimate lesson of Game Change rings loudly – the reason why, contrary to popular (or at least entertainment executive) belief, political stories work.  John McCain, Steve Schmidt and the Republicans looked at Barack Obama’s effect on his supporters and concluded that rock star charisma was enough to win.  What they and the world came to realize in 2008 was that it is not – gravitas matters more.  At its heart Game Change isn’t about wonkery and punditry and polls; what it does is put the lie to the old saw that anyone can be President – or, perhaps more accurately, that anyone should be President.  Some people just aren’t up to the job, and that’s nothing against them.  Sarah Palin certainly wasn’t, and there is a hint of classical Greek tragedy in the tale of a woman given such an enormous opportunity only to see it drift away because of her own failings.  I’m a proud liberal – I cannot condone Palin’s politics, how she conducts her life or how she would choose to impose her worldview on others, but I can empathize with the loss of a dream I didn’t realize I even wanted.  We all can.  That’s why Game Change works, and why it can take its place among the best political stories – because of the human factor.