This article is part of Tropes Week, in which we’re exploring our favorite tropes from cinema history. Read more here.
It’s, uh, an interesting week to discuss Watergate film tropes, as I’m sure screenwriters are already drafting their Trump impeachment screenplays at this very moment. Enduring tropes that characterize reporters as superheroes battling political corruption or general societal ills have helped to cement a cultural narrative about journalism as a noble profession and its role in society that continues into the present.
Iconic journalism-focused films have all been shaped by the legacies of Watergate, which was perhaps the most dramatic real-world instance of print journalism’s impact in American history. With smoke-filled conference rooms, intense typing, sweeping shots of DC monuments, and endless whispering about anonymous sources – investigative journalists in film usually follow the same playbook mirroring the reporting of the Nixon era.
The most consistently-used trope is the intrepid reporter or scrappy team of reporters chasing the next big scoop that’s going to expose a conspiracy or cover-up, usually at the expense of their safety. Along the way, the ambitious protagonist will likely meet with a key source on a park bench, preferably with the Capitol dome in the background. Multiple characters will also most likely have extended conversations about ethics and the First Amendment just to make the film’s message about as abundantly clear as a Schoolhouse Rock tape.
The dramatization of Watergate reporting in All the President’s Men (1976) established these tropes based on the real story of the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman), who arguably outshined every other figure in the Watergate saga besides Nixon himself. Deep Throat, the pseudonym given to the government insider who leaked information to Woodward, has also attained a mythic status over the years as a savior of democracy and the rule of law. The most memorable line, “Follow the money,” is uttered in a depiction of the meetings between Deep Throat and Woodward in a Rosslyn, Virginia, parking garage. The setup is almost too cinematically perfect to believe.
The story of Watergate and Nixon’s resulting downfall is so compelling that every presidential scandal since has tried to brand itself as a “-gate.” However, history never has such clearly defined heroes and straightforward narratives as films portray. The government versus media conflict at the forefront of All the President’s Men oversimplifies the reality that Congress and the legal system together investigated much of the actual criminal substance that pressured Nixon to ultimately resign. While Nixon hated the press and called the reporting a “witch hunt,” prominent focus on the press’ role in Watergate may exaggerate and distort our understandings of history, resulting in a mythology surrounding journalism that continues to shape modern film tropes and media realities.
Steven Spielberg’s The Post (2017) focuses on the Pentagon Papers, a leak of classified Vietnam War documents from the Kennedy and Johnson administrations that heightened anti-war sentiment and sent Nixon spiraling into paranoia. The film follows similar stylistic hallmarks from All the President’s Men, but Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep) adds to the trope as the discerning editor who must make the final decision to bring the legal battle all the way to the Supreme Court. Spoiler alert, freedom of the press wins! Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight (2015) tackles an even more morally repulsive scandal than Watergate but follows the same journalism tropes: underdog team in search of truth and justice, contacting sources face-to-face in an attempt to upend a powerful cover-up.
While certainly not upholding the nobility of journalism, Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler (2014) subverts the truth-seeking journalist mythos by adapting the intrepid reporter’s ambition and the power of media towards destructive ends and personal gain. During Watergate, the public had limited access to news with only three broadcast channels on television. When the scandal finally drew nationwide attention after Nixon’s re-election, it was truly difficult to look away. In the polarized cable news landscape, Jake Gyllenhaal’s Louis Bloom adapts Watergate tropes to their contemporary conclusions. Now that there are no media gatekeepers and virtually unlimited news options, misinformation and fake news shatter the superhero journalist trope and the public struggles to trust either government or those who try to hold government accountable.
Two 2019 films may signal how Watergate tropes could continue to evolve. Scott Z. Burns’ The Report features Adam Driver investigating CIA torture methods after 9/11 but playing a real-life Senate staffer rather than a reporter. The job description is different, but the tropes remain the same: looming personal danger, sifting through piles of evidence, underdog team against a powerful system, and characters yelling about ethics. The trailer tagline “truth matters” is a direct indicator of the significance of these tropes and the overall worldview they convey in the context of the Trump presidency.
Jay Roach’s Bombshell focuses on the dismantling of another powerful system, this time the sexual harassment allegations against former Fox News CEO Roger Ailes by Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman) and Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron). In the aftermath of post-9/11 disillusionment, the Me Too movement, and the current media firestorm of impeachment, there’s no shortage of material for the next generation of journalist-centric films. Dramatizing the true stories of courageous journalists provides a compelling narrative but can blur the line between historical fact and fiction, reality and trope.
From heroic to unethical, the institution of the press has attained mythical status in film. Many tropes, originating from the Watergate scandal, have remained the same in spite of political changes, and these tropes can affect how the public perceives the role of the media today. In the post-Nixon era and especially in the Trump era, there has been an undeniable appeal for films that show the press conquering lies and democracy prevailing over corruption. The world has only gotten messier since the 1970s, but the cultural narrative of the heroic, truth-seeking journalist may speak to a persistent desire for some comfort and inspiration in a cynical political environment.