All the Cinema’s Spawn: Woodward and Bernstein’s Bastard Offspring


The film that launched ten thousand ill-advised careers?

In 1998/2003, the book/movie Easy Riders, Raging Bulls laid down a new stratum of received wisdom:

That the 1970s witnessed a “Silver Age” of American film making, after brave young rebel outsiders employed their low budget indie hits as celluloid Trojan Horses, infiltrated bankrupt, boring old Hollywood and rescued it from itself.

(And went on to make stuff like, er, Star Wars – yes, I said it – The Goonies and One from the Heart. High fives all around!)

Reinforced by the coincidental companion piece The Kid Stays in the Picture (1994/2002), the “We practically invented cinema, dude!” meme was embraced by the rest of the Baby Boomers (self-congratulatory as ever), hipster Gen-Xers, and precocious Whatever You Young People Today Call Yourselves.

Now, some folks have “a problem with names.” I have a problem with memes.

Don’t get me wrong: there are some great 1970s movies: (The Conversation, Nashville, Jaws, A Clockwork Orange); some that weren’t great but ahead of their time and hugely influential (The Jerk, Smile, Pretty Poison, Harold & Maude, Massacre at Central High), and others I’ll admit are just charms on my personal mythology bracelet and may in fact be crap (The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane, Willy Wonka…, Carrie, Phantom of the Paradise).

(And You Young People Today who think of Jack Nicholson and Robert DeNiro as “those old dudes who always play the crazy mafia dad”?  Please add Five Easy Pieces (1970) and Mean Streets (1973) to your must-see list.)

But holy Mackinaw, Boombers and hipsters everywhere: just glance at this blush-inducing list of 1970s movies! American Graffiti?! The Sting?! Apocalypse Now?! (the movie about the movie is vastly superior.) The massively overrated The Exorcist, which takes about 40 minutes to even start? Ugh.

(And like all rightwing blowhards, I devoutly profess that the best part of Easy Rider is the last 60 seconds….)

Alas, one of the 1970s most overrated (and, more importantly, negatively influential) films was just honored with a place on the Library of Congress’ prestigious National Film Registry.  That movie is All the President’s Men (1976).

No, this isn’t me complaining again that the Watergate hearings interrupted my lunchtime viewing of The Flintstones and otherwise messed with my head, with lasting results.

The influence of All the President’s Men upon society at large has been incalculably toxic. Witness McSeweeney’s founder Dave Eggers in (cough) The Washington Post just a few weeks ago:

I just re-watched “All the President’s Men,” which I do every year or so, and, every time, I marvel at how interesting Woodward and Bernstein‘s lives were at The Post, and how well the film explains the reporting process, its doggedness and randomness, and how great an excuse it is to get out in the world and ask every seemingly obvious question you can think of (What books did the man check out?), because you never know, you might bring down a government that has it coming.

Now, I hasten to add: another other bit of received wisdom — that thousands of “Eggers” were inspired to become writers in general and investigative journalists in particular because of ATPM — doesn’t quite withstand, er, investigation:

…scholarly research has shown that Woodward, Bernstein, and All the President’s Men did not cause enrollments to climb at journalism and mass communication programs at U.S. college and universities.

One such study was financed by the Freedom Forum media foundation and conducted by researchers Lee B. Becker and Joseph D. Graf. They reported in 1995 that “growth in journalism education result[ed] not from specific events as Watergate … but rather to a larger extent from the appeal of the field to women, who ha[d] been attending universities in record numbers. The growth also in part reflect[ed] the applied nature of the field and its link to specific job skills.”

Becker and Graf added:

“There is no evidence … that Watergate had any effect on enrollments.”

(Although there’s considerable anecdotal evidence, like that which seems to indicate that watching “Gordon Gecko” on the big screen prompted lots of kids to work on Wall Street.)

However, the idea that journalists should be in the business of “changing the world” persists — like cultural halitosis — among both journalists and the general public.

Next: The myth of Woodward and Bernstein…