After interviewing Richard Nixon in 1968, Gloria Steinem described the presidential candidate with a question: “When Nixon is alone in a room, is there anyone there?” At the time, Steinem characterized it as a “philosophical tree-in-the-forest question,” but with hindsight on our side, we can safely call it a premonition. Just a few years later, everyone would find out what it was like to have a conversation with Nixon when he thought no one else was in the room—the man who publicly valued law and order would out himself as a crook in a series of taped private conversations, the same ones that would eventually lead to his resignation. The answer to Steinem’s question is yes; Richard Nixon, the person, just wasn’t as guileless as his public persona.
Here was a man who knew how a public man should behave, especially in front of the cameras. (To wit, only when he knew they were rolling.) It’s why you see more of the real him in behind-the-scenes footage, when he gets a little too comfortable or forgets the camera is rolling. In one particular instance, as he’s preparing to announce his resignation, he starts talking to someone off-camera, telling them he doesn’t want his picture taken. He concedes for a second, but after the camera bulbs flash a couple of times, he abruptly ends it. “That’s enough,” he says, before he remembers that he is being filmed. In an effort to save face, he offers a small, conciliatory gesture in a brief, off-handed remark about how he’s afraid a friend, who “always wants to take a lot of pictures,” will one day catch him picking his nose.
In the same vein (and profile), Steinem sized up Nixon as a man who created himself—someone who could learn things, but never quite grasp them. What someone as fatally flawed as Nixon couldn’t understand was that, while the presidency is a largely symbolic and public role, it’s not enough to play the carefully crafted character you put out into the world. At some point, you have to become that person. Much like telegenic charisma, a president is always subject to perception. And, to an extent, it can’t just be performed.
A few months before the Watergate story broke, The Candidate, starring Robert Redford and Peter Boyle, was released. It’s a politically inclined Pygmalion tale that harkens back to the same idea: that in office, you eventually have to become the role that you’re playing. It’s important to note that the film was written by Jeremy Larner, a speechwriter during Senator Eugene J. McCarthy’s campaign for the 1968 Democratic presidential nomination, which makes for a more informed (if satirical) warning on performativity in politics. In the film, Marvin Lucas (Boyle) taps environmental lawyer Bill McKay (Redford) to run as the Democratic opposition to U.S. Senator Crocker Jarmon (Don Porter). It’s a Faustian bargain with a twist: McKay is guaranteed to lose, but can still run to further promote his environmental work. It doesn’t take too long until McKay is inducted into the entire spectacle of campaigning—his message is slowly tweaked, he gets a makeover, and his demeanor becomes less off-the-cuff and more camera-ready. What you slowly start to notice, however, is the whirr of machinery as he gains popularity. It takes a lot of equipment to make a man and spread his message: the invasive cameras, superimposed TV screens, falling boom mics, and the short bursts of flashing bulb lights. We see him less in person, so to speak, and more through the lens of a camera or on a TV screen. We’re increasingly bombarded with his public image.
If Lucas is spinning an unyielding gossamer system, then McKay is trapped in it. And it’s one preoccupied with form rather than content. It’s a lesson that McKay will eventually learn the hard way at the end of the film, when he actually wins. We see a dumbstruck McKay look to Lucas and ask “What now?”—only to be drowned out by a mob of friends, family, and supporters. But even before that moment, McKay’s public mask had begun to crack; in moments when he can’t keep up with the other version of himself, he’ll goof off or rebel in private. In one scene, he breaks character while rehearsing a speech: “Vote once, vote twice for Bill McKay…you middle-class honkies,” he jests as he double-peace signs like Nixon. The most telling breakdown of all is during the well-known “Laughing Scene,” wherein a falling boom mic leads to an uncontrollable fit of laughter from McKay. After that, he corpses through the taping of his speech as a frustrated producer yells “I fail to see the humor!” But the irony isn’t lost on McKay: His message is now more generic, the production value has gone up, and he’s delivering his speech during a Rolex-sponsored segment. He’s a sellout and, while his campaign was initially framed as grassroots—with one camera shooting him gonzo-style—it’s now become bigger than he is. Even if he doesn’t believe what he’s putting out there, too many people are now invested in it, both literally and figuratively. He no longer answers only to himself.
In an interview with Brooklyn Magazine in 2016, Jeremy Larner shared a chilling moment during the filming of one of the speech scenes in The Candidate. The former speechwriter is talking about how emotion “that’s [been] induced in an audience” can transcend a politician’s message, and how he wanted to replicate that effect in the film. He wanted “virgin audiences” that would react authentically to McKay’s speeches, but director Michael Ritchie didn’t have the time or resources to seek them out, so Larner had to rehearse every line with the same audience of extras, telling them when and where to react. To his horror, during the filming of one of the speeches—a speech he described as “pure demagogic nonsense of the liberal sort”—he discovered that some of the extras were “spontaneously crying” even though Larner had previously instructed their reactions.
What’s more, when Redford, playing McKay, received a standing ovation, he recognized what this kind of adulation could do to a person, later telling Larner that it “frightened him.” It did not, however, frighten Dan Quayle, a young congressman who was inspired to run for congress after watching the film. (He would, eventually, become the 44th vice president of the United States.) Again, a political figure, whether fictional or real, is constantly open to interpretation, even if people choose the wrong one.
“Look, forget the myths the media’s created about the White House—the truth is, these are not very bright guys, and things got out of hand.” —Deep Throat to Bob Woodward, All the President’s Men(1976)
The relationship between Hollywood and politics is often described as an insidious one, especially when both industries court each other so aggressively. Both systems create and sustain myths and public figures, promote a set of values and ideals, and most importantly, toy with our emotions. When it comes to political dramas or satires, whether fictional or based on a true story, political figures are branded in our minds as either good or bad, and we’re much more invested in understanding the bad than probing the good. Films help shape the cultural construction of American identity, and, in turn, influence the public’s memory. Hollywood loves a good story and every politician (or their team) is good at manufacturing one.
If The Candidate was a cautionary tale for wannabe politicians, Alan J. Pakula’s All the President’s Men was a warning for the press and corrupt, career politicians. And instead of being fictional, it was based on actual events that were still very fresh in everyone’s mind. It united every Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein article and carved out a neater narrative of their entire investigation. When Redford bought the rights to the film, Woodward and Bernstein were still in the midst of their reporting, before everyone knew how the story would end (and before the book was even conceived). Still, he was convinced it would make a great movie because “in Hollywood terms, Woodward and Bernstein were the good guys.” The movie’s role was ultimately to showcase how the Watergate story had impacted the American culture, the American myth. And that sense of urgency hovers over the entire picture.
All the President’s Men, released just two years after Nixon’s resignation, was part of Pakula’s unofficial “Paranoia Trilogy,” a set of films whose common themes were distrust and megalomania. All the President’s Men depicts the setbacks and frustrations of investigative reporting, but it also sums up a complex network of corruption in just three words: follow the money. Over 40 years later, it still serves as a guiding motto for investigative journalists and a curse for corrupt politicians. If Watergate gave us a suffix to attach to any scandal under the sun, All the President’s Men provided a catchphrase for the fourth estate.
William Goldman, the man who wrote the script and in turn coined the famous catchphrase, is responsible for making heroes out of journalists when Nixon was fervently trying to poison the press. To his credit, he even made the mundane and unglamorous tasks of fact-checking, reporting, and writing seem somewhat appealing to a wider audience. In his New Yorker tribute to Goldman, Jordan Orlando described this feat as a “tightrope walk that his screenplay braves—remaining informative, comprehensive, and reasonably accurate to the book while telling a compelling movie story without slipping too far into hagiography and glamour—is so deftly mastered that a viewer barely notices the tricks that make it work.”
The foundation of the presidency is often based on a misconception: that a president is actually good. While it was easy to castigate Nixon, it’s been harder to examine other presidents who presented themselves as honest family men. Handsome is as handsome does, but Nixon was the opposite: awkward and grumbling, he didn’t fit the image; he was a clear cut bad guy after the tapes were released. It was hard not to hear them whenever you looked at him. After the Watergate scandal, Nixon was cemented in history as the first president to resign from office, thanks to Woodward and Bernstein. Even as newer scandals come to light, Watergate remains our litmus test, our reference point. It’s like we’ve completely forgotten that Nixon was just the beginning, that there was a larger system involved.
The Candidate, in some ways,started that conversation. When Vincent Canby reviewed the film for The New York Times in 1972, he brought to light an alternative idea of those who seek the presidency: “The best man should lose, or he isn’t the best man.” This, he explained, was the “Catch-22 of American politics…that no good man can win without either being hopelessly corrupted or turned into a bewildered cipher.” In order to preserve a moral aspiration in people, the president has to represent a moral ideal—but as a result, we wind up with a constant revolving door of different people, each putting forth a similar persona. When Nixon broke character by getting caught publicly, his actions threatened the sanctity of the presidency, and so an example had to be made of him.
“Nixon forgot the voice-activated recorders were there. He got sloppy.” —Dick Cheney, Vice (2018)
In modern Hollywood, “based on a true story” can mean different things, but its purpose is much more deliberate and effective come awards season. This string of five strategic words — only ever applied by a screenwriter, filmmaker, or production company — exposes its own contradiction: there is source material, but no one is required to be entirely faithful to it. And yet, no matter how much the finished product waivers from its original source, its truthiness will be emphasized everywhere.
Nearly a year into our new post-fact world, 20th Century Fox released Steven Spielberg’s The Post, starring Meryl Streep as Kay Graham, the publisher of The Washington Post, and Tom Hanks as the newspaper’s executive editor, Ben Bradlee. The film positioned itself as a sentimental thrust against corruption, with truth as its weapon—a kind of All the President’s Men for the Trump era. Despite invoking nostalgia, it did little to spur a revolution.
The film doesn’t hold a candle to All the President’s Men, but it does (questionable Hanks casting aside) spotlight Ben Bradlee. Prior to The Post, Bradlee’s cinematic legacy had been burnished through All the President’s Men, specifically in Jason Robards’ portrayal of a hard-driving editor who delivered tough-love speeches that ended with things like “If you guys fuck up again, I’m going to get mad.” Bradlee has always been a symbol for the free press, but he wasn’t perfect. All the President’s Men briefly touches on how Bradlee’s cozy ties with JFK led to some major oversights in his journalistic coverage. It takes the allegation further, however, in that Bradlee didn’t just court the establishment, he was a part of it. This not only interrogated his moral standing, but pointed out his blind spots.
The Post briefly challenged Bradlee’s myth, but quickly moved on rather than examining it. And here’s what often gets left out of the cultural narrative that surrounds him: despite being lionized for exposing secrets and lies, Bradlee was just as capable of burying them. In his memoir, published in 1995, he reveals how he handed over an incriminating diary to the CIA. After his sister-in-law, Mary Pinchot Meyer, was found shot to death near a canal in Georgetown, Bradlee discovered, through a hidden diary, that she was having an affair with his friend John F. Kennedy. As the blow sinks in, he’s hounded by the CIA’s counterintelligence chief, James Jesus Angleton, who wants the diary and its incriminating evidence. (In addition to her trysts with Kennedy, Meyer was also the ex-wife of a CIA official. Before her murder, which remains unsolved, the CIA was reportedly wiretapping her phone.) Angleton offered to destroy the diary if Bradlee handed it over to him. Bradlee is caught in a bind: the diary is a “public document” but also a private family matter. In the end, he gives it to Angleton. The public has a right to know the truth, until it hits too close to home.
And the thing is, while we’re currently being empowered (or bombarded, depending on the day) by messages encouraging us to seek out the facts, we’re also aware that a handful of people and institutions have always shaped history and decided what the facts are, that “truth” is usually edited or tweaked before we ever lay our eyes on it. And Hollywood isn’t much different: the truth is yours if you can afford to buy the rights to it.
Recently, Adam McKay attempted to join the ranks of hard-hitting truth seekers with 2015’s The Big Short and last year’s Vice. In The Big Short, which he won an Oscar for adapting from Michael Lewis’ book, McKay was lauded for breaking the fourth wall, halting the film’s narrative periodically to have celebrities like Margot Robbie or Anthony Bourdain explain how a housing bubble led to the 2008 financial crisis. But the film’s overall tone, much like its resolution, was conflicted—it condemned the greedy architects of the financial crisis, but celebrated hedge fund managers like Michael Burry (Christian Bale), who profited from the collapse. At times it’s unclear whether The Big Short is condemning the system, championing a band of outsiders who told everyone so, or simply blaming the audience.
In Vice, this problem is exacerbated even more because its hypothesis is wrong: Dick Cheney was not the only person who orchestrated our current political climate. If there’s anything we’ve learned by now, it’s that there’s always a larger system at play. Does that take the heat off Cheney? No, of course not—but Cheney isn’t the whole story.
The tone of Vice’s narrator (Jesse Plemons) is as condescending and smug as its content. While delineating Cheney’s strategies, or explaining executive power to us, he constantly makes off-handed remarks about how easily the public is duped. Going into great detail about how Cheney gradually worked his way up from intern to second-in-command—how he exploited a corrupt system and manipulated people behind the scenes—we’re soon confronted with a different Cheney from the alcoholic Yale dropout we met at the beginning of the film. He’s now a master manipulator.
What McKay seems to overlook is that Dick Cheney was already a reviled political figure in most people’s minds; Vice’s depiction doesn’t offer anything new beyond a bizarre attempt to humanize a man who, after five heart attacks and a heart transplant, appears to be as freakishly immortal as Henry Kissinger. The main takeaway from Vice appears to be that the rest of us were simply too stupid to notice Cheney—but that’s how corrupt governments and politicians often operate. Cheney doesn’t deserve a cinematic legacy, nor do we particularly need a reminder of his two terms in office. But the system he finessed control and power from? That was the story right there. He could only hide in plain sight because so many before him had already done so, and still do.