[This is an excerpt from the latest lecture in my Studying Sociology Through Film
paper. You can find the texts of a couple of previous lectures here
This week one and a half thousand people filled Auckland’s Town Hall to protest against a new law which will make it easier for their government to spy on their e mails and other communications. The dissidents listened to speeches by a range of politicians, including the leaders of the Labour Party, the Green Party, and the Mana Party, and also heard from the German-born billionaire IT businessman Kim Dotcom.
Last year Dotcom’s mansion on the edge of Auckland was stormed by seventy-six armed police, who were backed by two helicopters. The police arrested Dotcom at the request of the United States government, which wants to deport him to face charges of internet piracy. Dotcom is free on bail while he appeals against his deportation. The Dotcom case has become controversial, because it has been revealed that the New Zealand government spied illegally on him at the request of the United States.
The meeting in Auckland echoes recent protests in the northern hemisphere against spying by governments and large corporations and related misuses of power. In May of this year Edward Snowden, a computer specialist who had worked with the American government, leaked a large amount of information to Britain’s Guardian newspaper and to the Washington Post.
In the opinion of many experts, the material that Snowden passed on showed that the United States had been using ‘anti-terrorist’ legislation passed after the 9/11 attacks as an excuse to spy on the e mails of millions of its citizens, as well as to spy on the people and governments of many foreign nations. The United States has been attempting to arrest Snowden for passing on this information, but he has fled to Russia, where he is hiding.
This week David Miranda, the partner of Glen Greenwald, one of the Guardian journalists who took information from Snowden, was detained for nine hours at London’s Heathrow airport in an operation which seems to have been jointly organised by British and American security forces. Miranda had his computer confiscated, and the Guardian newspaper has had its offices raided by British security forces.
Protesters against the treatment of Snowden, Miranda and the Guardian have accused the American and British governments of harassing the media and repressing free speech. Supporters of Snowden say that he should be congratulated rather than arrested for exposing the extent of America’s electronic spying.
It is appropriate that, at this time when alleged abuse of power by the American government and its allies is such a hot topic, we should watch All the President’s Men, a film which documents the way that two young journalists at the Washington Post, Bob Woodward, played by Robert Redford, and Carl Bernstein, played by Dustin Hoffman, discovered a series of ‘dirty tricks’ being used by the government of Richard Nixon against its opponents.
In 1972 Nixon was elected to a second term as the President of the United States. During his campaign for reelection, though, Nixon allowed a group of his supporters to break into offices of the opposition Democratic Party and steal documents from those offices. Nixon wanted to read the documents and discover the plans of his Democratic opponent for the presidency, George McGovern.
Unfortunately for Nixon, the burglars he had employed were caught at the scene of their crime. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein became curious about what the burglars were doing and who was paying them, and launched an investigation which led them all the way to the president. The Democratic Party offices which were burgled were located in a Washington, DC building called Watergate, and the controversy that developed as a result of Woodward and Bernstein’s investigations became known as the Watergate scandal.
Nixon used a variety of tactics to try to avoid being linked to the burglary. He forced two of his advisers to resign and take the blame for the event. They were sent to prison, but Nixon was unable to convince the media and the public that he was not involved in the crime. As he became increasingly fearful of the investigation that Woodward and Bernstein had started, Nixon began to spy on staff at the White House and elsewhere in government. He secretly recorded tens of thousands of hours of conversations, partly to find out if his staff were loyal to him and partly to try to gain material he could use to blackmail anyone who turned against him.
Eventually, nearly two years after the Watergate burglary, Nixon resigned as president. He would have faced criminal charges and a likely prison term if his successor as president, Gerald Ford, had not offered him a pardon for any crimes he committed during his term in office. Nixon is the only American president to resign from office, and his reputation has never recovered from the Watergate scandal.
When Edward Snowden showed that the Bush and Obama administrations had spied on huge numbers of Americans, many commentators were reminded of the Nixon era. But where Nixon was only able to spy on a relatively small number of people, owing to the pre-digital technology of the early 1970s, governments of the twenty-first century can use the internet and advanced software to monitor the communications of millions of people around the world.
All the President’s Men was directed by Alan Pakula, and based on the book of the same name published by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in 1974. Where Woodward and Bernstein’s book covers the whole of the Watergate saga, from the initial break-in until Nixon’s resignation, Pakula’s film covers only the first seven months after the burglary. All the President’s Men won several awards at the 1976 Academy Awards, and is still highly regarded by film critics.
Pakula’s movie avoids sensationalism. There are no car chases or explosions, and Nixon never appears in person, though he is often shown on television. The excitement and tension increase incrementally rather than suddenly, as we observe the careful and sometimes frustrating work of Woodward and Bernstein, and share their gradual realisation that what they had thought was a minor crime is in fact a scandal big enough to change the course of American history.
Last semester, in the Modern Pacific History paper, we discussed the strange fate that Sylvester Stallone's Rambo movies had enjoyed in the Pacific. Rambo was supposed to be a violently nationalistic American, but in Tonga he has become a local hero, and in Bougainville he was an inspiration for the independence movement which shut down a massive foreign-owned mine and defeated an army that was trained by Australia and supported by the United States.
The reception of the Rambo films in the Pacific reminds us that any piece of culture underdetermines its interpretation. An artist may set out to encode one meaning in a picture or statement, but her audience may give her image or words a quite different meaning. I want to talk about a couple of aspects of the visual style of All The President's Men, and suggest ways in which those aspects might be interpreted today.
Pakula's imagery emphasises the power of the United States government, and the relatively tiny resources of two young journalists. He repeatedly shows Woodward and Bernstein hurrying around Washington, DC, dwarfed by the massive and austere buildings of organisations like the Federal Bureau of Investigations. Sometimes the director seems to have placed his camera crew on the rooves of these joyless palaces. When the two men visit the the Library of Congress, that literary arsenal of the American political class, Pakula's camera adopts a ceiling's-eye view, so that we can often see only their hands and the tops of their heads.
Viewed from the rooves and balconies of Washington, the heroes of All The President's Men seem almost pitifully vulnerable. As Pakula's cameras follow Woodward and Bernstein down a sidewalk or up a staircase, we imagine a sniper sizing them up.
Pakula's shots of his protagonists seem even more sinister today, when the American government commands a fleet of sleepless and deadly drone aircraft. Obama was hailed as a peacemaker when he took office in 2009 - the academics of Sweden even embarrassed themselves by awarding him the Nobel Peace Prize for that year - but he has ordered drone attacks which have killed at least three thousand people in the Middle Eastern nations of Yemen and Pakistan. Today it is easier than ever for the leader of the United States to dispose of his enemies.
But some of Pakula's other visual devices perhaps now produce effects he did not intend in 1975.
All The President's Men is a movie filled with paper: there are the piles of typescript on the desks of Woodward and Bernstein and their fellow Washington Post journalists, the sheets hanging like tongues from hundreds of stuttering typewriters, the overstuffed files and folders of the archive rooms in government departments, and the columns of books in solemn libraries.
In the world of All The President's Men, information is captured and corralled on paper. Sometimes, as they slog their way through an archive, or struggle with the fifth draft of an article, Woodward and Bernstein seem about to be defeated by the weight of all that paper.
Pakula is not the only artist to make paper into a symbol of the complexity and obscurity of the world. In Franz Kafka's studies of bureaucratic absurdity, the typewriter and the file become tools with which truth can be evaded rather than revealed. Kafka earned a living writing confidential reports on insurance claims, and so understood the power a few pieces of paper could attain over human beings. In Orson Welles' film adaption of Kafka's The Trial we visit a lawyer's home, and see it filled with millions of pieces of loose paper, the detritus of a legal system whose workings are chaotic and malign.
Don De Lillo's great novel Libra introduces us to Nicholas Branch, an FBI officer who has spent patient and fruitless years investigating the assassination of John F Kennedy. After receiving consignment after consignment of documents from his FBI colleagues, from sympathetic academics, and from sleepless conspiracy theorists, Branch has surrendered much of his office to paper. The rising piles of photocopied articles, mimeographed newsletters, blown-up photographs, and confidential reports are slowly consuming the pocket of air around his desk. De Lillo makes Branch into a symbol of the intellectual paralysis that can be brought on by an oversupply of information.
I would like to suggest, though, that some of the symbolic properties of paper have changed in recent decades, as digital technology has altered the way that we collect, store, and transmit information.
Today's journalists, bureaucrats, and spies tend to compose their reports and requests on glowing screens rather than typewriters, and to communicate them using fibre optic cable rather than mail bags or drop boxs. Newspapers and government departments have replaced their old, dogeared archives with electronic databases. Even academic libraries, those celebrated temples of paper, have been wowed by digital technology, and today often seem to prefer e books and journals to traditional 'hard copy' volumes.
It is significant that the net, with its many gaps, and the cloud, with its fluffy fluidity, have emerged as popular metaphors for the new way that information is stored and shared in the digital age. With its global reach but lack of a recognisable locus, the internet is both pervasive and elusive.
I want to argue that some of the anxiety we suffer when we imagine governments using the internet to spy on us derives from our feeling that the internet lacks both finitude and form.
In the 1970s the CIA and the FBI and Richard Nixon's private army of goons kept files on thousands of their enemies, using wiretapping and other dirty tricks to gather the information that ended up in those files. But the technical limitations of pre-digital espionage meant that the reach of the bad guys was always limited, and their information was always piecemeal. There were only so many men in trenchcoats available to follow reporters through rainy streets, and so many spooks available to stick a listening device on a phone line.
Today, though, the internet has made the most esoteric information about our lives and opinions easily available to intelligence agencies. A handful of geeks working for the right government can harvest and analyse millions of e mails and skype sessions in an eight hour shift. The spy in the trenchcoat is obsolete.
It is notable that some of most popular neuroses of our age involve malign electricity and evil computers. Doctors and psychologists have used term 'electromagnetic sensitivity' to describe the (psychosomatic) pain, depression, and anxiety that increasing numbers of Westerners suffer when they get too close to an internet connection or an active cellphone. Psychiatrists regularly encounter patients who are tortured by delusions about the internet. Some of them claim that their minds are being controlled by fingers on a distant keyboard; others fear disappearing through their computer screens into some virtual hell.
I want to suggest that, at a time when we are increasingly frightened of an amorphous, uncontrollable realm of electronic information, the old-fashioned paper file has acquired a reassuring and almost romantic quality. The office cubby hole bulging with papers and the room full of noisy typewriters have become symbols of the finitude and comparative manageability of information.
Backward-looking television programmes like Life on Mars and movies like Zodiac dwell lovingly on the paper detritus of the police headquarters and newspaper office, showing off yellowing charge sheets and fat broadsheets as though they were fine works of art. Don De Lillo may have turned paper into a sinister symbol in Libra, but the journalists who interview him are always charmed by the fact that he works on an old-fashioned typewriter, and builds his novels out of piles of loose papers. New York City hipsters have taken to holding 'type-ins', where they try to bang out as many words a minute as Jack Kerouac.
For me, and I suspect for many other twenty-first century viewers, the piles of paper which are almost constant companions to Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in All The President's Men have a strangely comforting quality. They suggest not only the accessibility but the comprehensibility of information. As incriminating files and typed drafts for articles pile up on the desks of Woodward and Bernstein, the progress of our heroes is made tangible.
[Posted by Scott Hamilton]