What Director Alan Pakula’s Papers Reveal About Watergate
Jun 12, 2012 4:45 AM EDT
Ben Bradlee isn’t the only one raising questions about All the President’s Men. Max Holland probes director Alan Pakula’s papers and finds more evidence of literary license.
The New Journalism wave was cresting when Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward published All the President’s Men in 1974. Yet the book, curiously, was not considered an outstanding exemplar. The two were hailed, rather, as New Muckrakers, befitting the emphasis on them as Washington Post reporters rather than Simon & Schuster authors.
Affixing ATPM in the New Journalism firmament however, even at this late date, explains a lot about the book and the controversy it still generates 40 years after the “third-rate burglary” that brought down a president. Just last month, the revelation (in Jeff Himmelman’s new biography) that Post executive editor Ben Bradlee harbored a “residual fear in [his] soul” about the accuracy of some Deep Throat–related details in ATPM provoked a major media flap.
The basis for evaluating ATPM against the backdrop of the New Journalism comes from an unimpeachable source: the Alan J. Pakula papers at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Los Angeles. This is mildly surprising because no one was more responsible than Pakula, director of the eponymous 1976 movie, for turning "Woodstein" into the heroes of a mythic Hollywood Western (albeit one set in Washington).
Yet Pakula also sought to inject well-researched verisimilitude in his film. He obtained a heretofore unseen copy of Woodstein’s typewritten notes from a September 1972 interview with a key Watergate source. He interviewed Woodstein in 1975, as well as Harry Rosenfeld and Barry Sussman, the editors who directly supervised their work, and many others. All this occurred well before memories had become distant or gauzy. The Watergate duo had yet to become icons. Their recollections, and recollections about them, were not yet fully scripted.
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From left to right: Robert Redford, Jason Robards, Jack Warden, Dustin Hoffman, director Alan J. Pakula, and Martin Balsam, in 1976. (Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images)
Before delving into the papers, it’s useful to recall what the New Journalism was all about. The technique employed literary devices that were normally considered the domain of novels and put them to work in essays and books that purported to be nonfiction. New Journalism apostle Tom Wolfe asserted the style was not only not fiction, but had “already proven itself more accurate than traditional journalism.”
Wolfe identified the four tools New Journalism practitioners used to such great effect:
- Using scenes as much as possible to tell a story rather than a chronological narrative
- Dialogue in full rather than the use of quotes or statements
- A point of view (scenes always presented through the subjective eyes of a participant)
- Attention to everyday details, such as habits, possessions, and friends or family.
Woodstein only had to be nudged to resort to these devices when they wrote ATPM (although they certainly hadn’t used them in their 1972 Watergate coverage for the newspaper). Woodward once aspired to be a novelist. He crafted an entire book before graduating from Yale, only to be devastated when a publisher responded with a boilerplate rejection. Bernstein, according to the 1976 book The New Muckrakers by Len Downie Jr. (Bradlee’s eventual successor), saw himself as “an unappreciated newspaper pioneer of the ‘new journalism,’ in which long, dramatic and somewhat subjective narrative recreations of events would replace terse, dry, just-the-facts reporting”—a form Bernstein regarded as mere “stenography.” After covering the 1967 march on the Pentagon, the subject matter of Norman Mailer’s Pulitzer Prize–winning Armies of the Night, Bernstein had been so “bowled over” by Mailer’s technique, according to Woodstein biographer Alicia Shepard, that he pushed for ATPM to use the same third-person voice in a firsthand account.
The New Journalism was not without its detractors. The critic Dwight MacDonald argued it was actually a bastard form—“parajournalism” he called it—for the style was trying to have it both ways: “exploiting the factual authority of journalism and the atmospheric license of fiction.” In the hands of a less-than-scrupulous writer, the shifting of gears could be so casual that a reader would have no way of knowing, at any given moment, which end was up.
If ATPM owes a debt to the New Journalism, what model of it did Woodstein embrace? Answering this question is where the Pakula papers come in particularly handy.
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Read the entire article here.