Politics in the Dark: Deep Throat and All the President’s Men

Paper by Dakota Allen.

Director Alan Pakula’s film adaptation of journalists Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward’s book All the President’s Men was released in 1974, two years after President Nixon’s resignation. Although the American public at the time would have been familiar with the details of the Watergate scandal, Pakula’s film works to shed light on the investigation that uncovered a corruption case reaching all the way up to the presidency. Given that history is often remembered through visual presentation in film, Pakula’s movie would come to shape how the public viewed Watergate for years, continuing today. In the midst of the 1970s, a time of political unease, he chose to create a political thriller instilling the depth of corruption and the value of a free press as a check on government. A key component of the film that will be looked at in this paper through film analysis and research is the scene depicting Woodward’s first meeting with his iconic anonymous source, Deep Throat. Because Deep Throat is a person of intrigue whose true identity was not disclosed until 2005, this critical moment set in a dark parking garage adds mystery and carries theme of the government corruption; without this scene, the film would not have had the same impact.

The majority of the film takes place in The Washington Post’s building, where we see the bustle of the newsroom contrast with a sense of intense focus on the Watergate investigation. Throughout the movie, Woodward and Bernstein are attempting to uncover what happened with the break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in 1972. Through continuous phone calls and going out for interviews with anonymous sources, the two reporters gradually discover how high up the scandal goes. Through the plot, which is accentuated by the style of the film, the movie shows how true journalism can keep government in line. Pakula’s film is largely cut-and-dry in style with elements like direct lighting and an emphasis on dialogue. Thus, when Woodward meets Deep Throat alone in a parking garage, changes in cinematographic style and the mise-en-scene bring special meaning to the film.

A critical feature of the film as a whole and the Deep Throat scene is lighting. One article on this feature of Pakula’s production states that “politics often lurks in the dark” while light, on the other hand, symbolizes truth (Bani-Khair et al. 145). This message contrasts with that of films like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington in which the media is depicted as misleading. The Washington Post office floor features rows of bright, fluorescent lights across the expanse of the ceiling. The Deep Throat scene is the first time the setting is in the dark of night since the opening scene of the Watergate break in. At this point, the audience already gets a sense that matters related to politics happen in the dark. When Woodward enters the parking garage, the rows of dim, blue-tinted lights create a sense of mystery. The camera cuts to Deep Throat who is watching Woodward enter, but all that can be seen is a silvery shine on his forehead. Woodward is able to find him from the flash of a red flame and sound of Deep Throat lighting a cigarette. As the two talk, Woodward is in the light and Deep Throat stays shrouded in black, with shadows cast by a wall that he is standing next to (See still 1). The camera cuts between close-ups of their faces, but there is only an outline of Deep Throat’s face. Deep Throat’s anonymity creates a sense of disconnect between the audience and this man who represents members of government involved in the scandal. “The fact that actors can hardly be seen on the screen triggers the idea that there is something behind the scenario. It provides the audience with the sense that there is a real political game being played in the dark by people of authority,” (Khair et al. 2016). Because future interviews with government sources will happen in dark settings, this scene sets up the political theme critiquing government corruption and secrecy.

Cinematography meets dim lighting in this shot to illustrate the theme of government corruption by showing that politics not only exists in darkness, but in a world of ambiguity. While shots in the open-space newsroom have a far depth of field, this scene uses a much shorter depth of field in the close-ups of Woodward and Deep Throat. Only a few rows of blurred lights can be seen in the background. On the other hand, even when the camera is on specific characters in the newsroom, the audience can still see clearly beyond those point people. When it comes to government interactions, however, there is a limit to what the audience can know and see. Apparently, the clean, concise newsroom environment was intentionally shot with a bifocal lens, while the politics of the Nixon era are purposefully shown as “shadowy” and “corrupt” (Kirschner 57).

Another feature of the film that stands out in this scene is the use of color and tones to develop the theme of a cold, distanced government. When Woodward enters the parking garage, the mise-en-scene includes cool colors exemplified by the darkness and cool blue of the lighting. This is a direct contrast to the newsroom environment that is full of orange and yellow hues accentuated by colorful desks in green, red and blue (See still 2). Everything in the newsroom is crisp and clear compared to the obscurity of the parking garage. This is similar to the use of colors in other films like The Lives of Others, where the gray hues of the German Stasi officers contrasted with the warm tones in the home of characters in the art scene (Coulter 3). Similarly, the creators of All the President’s Men developed a clear, welcoming newsroom environment that draws viewers into details as specific as Woodward’s scribbled notes, while the political encounter with Deep Throat is cold and impersonal.

The drama of the Deep Throat scene and its contribution to the film’s political nature is also formed by the creators’ use of sound. Compared to the Washington Post newsroom, which is filled with background noise of people clacking away at typewriters and making phone calls, the parking garage is silent and eerie, and voices are kept to a whisper. Dramatic music, which is used sparingly in the film, also leads up to this scene. Therefore, the audience is immediately drawn into the dialogue and Deep Throat’s evasiveness to Woodward’s questions, such as his general advice to “follow the money.” The other noticeable sound is some distant whistling that stops Woodward and Deep Throat in the middle of conversation. It brings a sense of fear that the two of them are potentially being watched and subtly pushes the notion of “big brother” keeping tabs on them. This same idea will come up in future interviews, as sources will be afraid to talk in fear that someone is spying on them. Even Woodward and Bernstein eventually have the same fear of being surveilled. Whether this is entirely accurate to what went on throughout the Watergate investigation does not seem to be of importance to the filmmakes. Pakula had to add some sense of drama to entice the audience and demonstrate the intensity of the scandal and government distrust in the ‘70s.
Overall, the Deep Throat scene is crucial adding drama and mystery to All the President’s Men, making Pakula’s work the political masterpiece that it is still today. Lighting, cinematography, color and sound are four key elements of the scene that help develop a theme of government corruption. Pakula’s piece is not geared at telling his audience in 1976 about Watergate – he uses the lens of Woodward and Bernstein’s investigation to highlight the broken politics of the age. This brings up the issue of how Hollywood represents history, for as time passes, audiences will be less and less familiar with Watergate when they approach Pakula’s film. Sissako, director of Timbuktu, states in an interview that he has the job as a filmmaker to represent a certain time and place, and this city he portrays becomes symbolic of all of Africa (Guillen 43). In the same way, All the President’s Men becomes a representation of politics in the ‘70s and a symbol for corrupt government in the U.S. as a whole.

Works Cited
Bani-Khair, Baker M., Nazmi Al-Shalabi, Abdullah Jaradat, Mohammad Ababneh, Mahmoud Al Khaza’leh and Nisreen Al-Khawaldeh. “Light and Dark in Pakula’s All the President’s Men.” International Journal of Language and Literature, vol. 4, no. 1, pp. 145-149.
Coulter, Gerry. “Visual Storytelling and History as a Great Toy – The Lives of Others.” Wide Screen, vol. 1, no. 2, 2010, pp. 1-10.
Guillen, Michael. “Hidden Certainties and Active Doubts: An Interview with Abderrahmane Sissako.” Cineaste, Spring 2015, pp. 42-45.
Kirschner, Jonathan. “All the President’s Men (1976).” Film & History, vol. 36, no. 2, 2006, pp. 57-58.

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