It was hardly the first Hollywood movie about journalism or crusading reporters, but Alan J. Pakula’s 1976 political thriller All The President’s Men nevertheless changed the genre in ways that are still being reflected in recent films like Spotlight and Snowden. Andy Wright discusses the classic movie’s stylistic choices in a piece for Atlas Obscura called “How All The President’s Men Defined The Look Of Journalism On Screen.” Even though the film won Oscars for Jason Robards’ supporting performance as editor Ben Bradlee and William Goldman’s adapted screenplay, Wright does not focus on acting or writing in his analysis. Instead, he theorizes, the real influence of All The President’s Men can be seen in its lighting, costumes, and set decoration. The movie’s signature style is defined by grungy garages, rumpled clothing, and cluttered desks.
In telling the story of Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman)—two Washington Post reporters whose investigation of the Watergate break-in and subsequent cover-up eventually brought down the Nixon presidency—Pakula presents a version of the nation’s capital that is shrouded in ominous shadows. “The city and its landmarks are a foreboding chiaroscuro of darkness,” Wright says. “There are barely lit parking structures, inky car rides, gloomy apartments and homes.” This makes the “glaringly lit” Post offices stand out even more. Journalism becomes a beacon of truth, then, shedding light on what others have attempted to keep hidden.
The scenes at Washington Post headquarters are also noted for their incredible attention to detail. It should be noted that George Jenkins and George Gaines also won an Oscar for their set decoration on this film. At least part of that trophy should be shared with real-life Post staffers who sent genuine clutter from their own office to the set of the film, including “a risqué Christmas card, a newsletter from the Little Richard Fan Club, a chart on animal parasites, and enough other goodies to fill 75 boxes.” This was key to giving the movie its realistic, lived-in feel that still resonates today.