One of my earliest childhood memories involves the Watergate hearings. My father was shopping for a new car battery. We were in the auto-parts store at the Watchung, New Jersey Sears. My mother, my brother and I were in the waiting area. A television was playing. Suddenly a crowd gathered. I stood up. I don’t know if it was the live feed of the hearings or simply a replay on the local news, but a man I now recognize to have been Senator Howard Baker was interrogating a man I now recognize to have been John Dean.
“What did the President know and when did he know it?”
Little did I know at that age how fucked my country really was. Vietnam, the assassinations of almost every major progressive leader the decade before, the riots in Newark and Detroit, the gas lines, the beginning of the neoliberal push against the New Deal, the America I would grow up believing in was already dead. In 1974 and 1976, Alan J. Pakula made two important, if flawed movies that caught some of the national mood, the sense of paranoia and societal disintegration that came out of the Kennedy assassinations, plural, and the fall of the Nixon administration. Watching them back to back will give you a good idea of what an honest journalist, or anybody interested in the truth, was up against in the mid-1970s.
The Parallax View can be a frustrating film to watch. There’s no emotional or dramatic payoff. It’s easy to get confused if you’re not paying close attention. There are no sympathetic protagonists or charismatic villains. Even Warren Beatty’s star power is overshadowed by the film’s overwhelming sense of dread. It’s also the best Kennedy Assassination movie ever made.
The Parallax view opens with a political rally at the Space Needle in Seattle. Lee Carter, a local TV reporter introduces Senator Charles Carroll, who she clearly admires. Carroll, she tells us, is a cranky independent, a liberal Republican or a conservative Democrat, a man of great personal integrity if unpredictable ideology. Someone also wants him dead. An assassin, who, in turn, is assassinated by a shadowy man we’ll see later in the film, blows his brains out in the restaurant at the top of the Space Needle. One of the witnesses is Joseph Fraday, Warren Beatty, a journalist who writes for an unnamed newspaper in the Pacific Northwest.
Joseph Fraday is a brilliant, if unsuccessful journalist, a malcontent and a social misfit whose ability to uncover the truth is matched only by his inability to get it out to a wider audience. One day, three years later, Lee Carter visits him at home. She’s terrified. All of the witnesses to the Carroll assassination (which a group of men clearly modeled on the Warren Commission had determined to be the work of a “lone nut”) are dying untimely, and, to her mind, suspicious deaths. She fears she’s next. Fraday doesn’t take her seriously. The next day she’s found dead of a drug overdose. Now he fears he’s next. As the film unfolds, Fraday uncovers a link between the Carroll assassination and a shadowy company called The Parrallax Corporation. A lucky accident lets him fake his death. An old contact in the FBI gets him a new identity. Eventually, tenacious investigative journalism, the willingness to take risks, and an uncanny series of lucky breaks lets him infiltrate Parallax — think Blackwater meets MK Ultra— and uncover their links to Carroll’s death.
If the Parallax View is frustrating and confusing, then it has nothing to do with how Alan J. Pakula couldn’t have made a more emotionally satisfying film if he had wanted. Pakula’s goal is not to set Fraday up as the hero and give us a cathartic ending where the bad guys are brought down, and the hero marries some gratuitous love interest. His goal is to put us in Fraday’s head, to make us experience the terror and bewilderment of a rational man trying to get to the truth in a society that’s falling apart, that doesn’t seem to be governed by any rules you can understand, that’s conspiring for his destruction. If Fraday thinks he’s one step ahead of the Parallax Corporation, and we believe him, that makes the ending all the more unsettling. I went into the Parallax View skeptical of Kennedy conspiracy theories. I came out wondering if, perhaps, the conspiracy mongers are onto something, at least as far as Oswald being a “patsy” goes. As the Parallax View concludes, Fraday realizes that all his intrepid reporting, his diligent infiltration of the Parallax Corporation has, in reality, been manipulated by the Parallax Corporation all along. To his, and our horror, we realize who the new Lee Harvey Oswald is.
The Parallax View was made in 1974, All the President’s men in 1976. Most of the dread and pessimism of The Parallax View comes from the sense that Richard Nixon would never leave office, that the shadowy security and surveillance state that, most likely, brought down both Kennedys and Martin Luther King, was untouchable, that democracy had been overthrown behind the peoples’ backs and wasn’t coming back. After Watergate and the end of the draft, the rest of the country moved on. Pakula, at least in 1976, did not. If the national myth surrounding Watergate was about two crusading journalists bringing down Nixon, and about the restoration of democracy, All the President’s Men, in spite of its reputation, doesn’t buy into it. Indeed, what pleased me the most about All the President’s Men is how it’s almost as frustrating and confusing as The Parallax View.
If the Parallax View ends with the complete triumph of evil, then All The President’s Men ends in a draw. Robert Redford’s Woodward and Dustin Hoffman’s Bernstein are Joe Fraday’s brother malcontents. Woodward and Bernstein pursue the Watergate investigation with such determination, not because they’re experienced reporters, but in spite of it. They’re not yet assimilated into the culture of trading silence for access. They don’t see the world from the point of view of the elite. If they succeed where Joe Fraday fails, live where he dies, then that’s only because they have a powerful institution behind them, Ben Bradlee and the old, liberal Washington Post. The Parallax Corporation easily snuffs out Joe Fraday’s ineffectual old editor at his unamed Seattle newspaper. That’s not so easy to do with Bradlee.
But what makes All the President’s Men such a good, frustrating, unsatisfying movie is how confusing it is. If Pakula put us into Joe Fraday’s shoes, made us feel his terror and paranoia, he puts us into the minds of Woodward and Bernstein, not after they became famous journalists, but before they did. At one point in the film, Woodward assures one of the conspirators that he too loves his country. He’s a Republican. He has no bias against Nixon. He just wants to get to the truth. What that truth is, however, is by no means as clear during the Watergate Investigation as it would subsequently become after Nixon’s resignation. All the President’s Men not only shows us the unglamorous side of journalism, but the insecure side of journalism. One false move, one bad lead, one slip into conspiracy mongering, and both of them could end up like Joe Fraday, small time nobodies at an obscure paper somewhere out in middle-America.
All the President’s Men ends on a tentative note. Nixon, we understand, is going down. But democracy, we know, won’t be restored. In the end, The Parallax View would be the more accurate prediction of the future. From the October Surprise to Iran Contra to the investigation by Patrick Fitzgerald of the scandal around Valarie Plame and Joe Wilson, no more senior American elected officials would resign or go to jail. Watergate was probably the last hurrah of a genuinely free American press. The mainstream corporate press would become a court press, dedicated to protecting, not challenging power. Investigating real conspiracies like Watergate would become about investigating fake conspiracies like Benghazi. Genuine heirs to the tradition of Woodward and Bernstein, like Gary Webb, would find no powerful institutions like the old school Washington Post to protect them. Like Joe Fraday, they would be destroyed.
In the end, The Parallax View seems contemporary. All The President’s Men feels like nostalgia. That’s the world we live in.