Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Reflections on Woodward, Bernstein, and penthouses

In the United States of America the discerning reporter isn’t a hero: he’s a star. When Hollywood was born, and the Americans took over the task of fermenting the world’s youngest art-form from the French, their first scriptwriters came from newspapers and magazines. In earlier periods they were the real storytellers, not the directors, so it wasn’t much of a surprise that the movies they wrote featured their own kind as the protagonists. Somewhere in the fifties, when the world became more cynical, they were, to be sure, characterised as villains (as with Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole), but these were exceptions for the most. So when the sixties and seventies came and the American people began suspecting their own leaders, directors and scriptwriters painted the reporter as the people’s hero.

The difference with Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the protagonists of Alan J. Pakula’s All the President’s Men (1976), was that unlike other reporters valorised before them in the movies, they were real. Woodward and Bernstein were an odd couple, which meant that they were perfectly equipped to uncovering the links that would take them from a simple break-in at the Democratic National Committee Headquarters to Richard Nixon’s resignation. They were the heroes behind Watergate, with the caveat that they were only doing their job by respecting the truth: had Richard Nixon not been the villain, Watergate wouldn’t have been as popular, but these two wouldn’t have given a damn about that. It was a gentler time, certainly more idealistic, when reporters treasured hard facts over yellow speculation.

All the President’s Men was the last of a trilogy of films that Pakula made about the culture of paranoia which swept across America after the Kennedy assassinations. All in all, it was the most realistic of the three, not least because it was based on a real-life incident and was hence driven less by conjecture than by historical actuality. Looking back now, it’s seems a little dated, but still transcends the limits of its medium. When Cary Grant and Joel McCrea and Kirk Douglas acted as reporters, they really did act. But when Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford acted in Pakula’s film they weren’t performers. They were those they had been taken in to act out.

Of course All the President’s Men isn’t about this odd journalistic couple only, since if that were the case it wouldn’t have been different to all those films that Grant, McCrea, and Douglas had acted in before. It’s about an intricate political web built on intrigue, vagueness, and confusion: from the five White House “plumbers” and their connection to the CIA to the dubiously named Committee to Re-elect the President (with the acronym CREEP) that Nixon used to smear his political rivals, that web was so carefully crafted, so well oiled, that it was bound to be discovered.

Watergate was to the seventies what Monica Lewinsky was to the nineties, with the caveat that Bill Clinton’s extramarital affairs never really dampened his base because no one had the moral authority to vilify him, definitely not the Republicans. Richard Nixon, on the other hand, inspired derision from the beginning of his presidency. As Michael O’Leary points out in a series of articles on the man, he was a precursor to Donald Trump, obsessive over hunting rivals as both were. Even before Watergate, he was on his way out. The American political culture had shifted from George Washington, who could not tell a lie, to Nixon, who could not tell the truth.

What is it about political cover-ups that inspires so much derision and hatred among us, the people, apart from the fact that those cover-ups tend to affect the people badly? I rather think the movies were a good indicator of how we reacted to them. The directors of the thirties told us that things would only get better. The directors who emerged after World War II told us that good would triumph over evil. But that was a time when political decency was quality no one seriously questioned. When the sixties came, and when we began to move away from America and moved into Bergman, Fellini, and Antonioni, we knew the world wasn’t so simple. We were taught that the corrupt were purveyors of decency, that at times they were so successful at this deception that we fooled ourselves into trusting them.

Popular culture, as I implied in my political column last week, has a tendency of making the most obvious things in life seem ambivalent. One can’t blame the artist, because s/he has to work from limited resources and is compelled to use those resources even with the most generous budget. At times, however, this culture of ambivalence tends to contradict even the most commendable intentions of that artist. I remember my friend Dhanuka Bandara contending, for instance, that after the fall of Mahinda Rajapaksa our playwrights ran out of so much steam in their work that they became bankrupt. The same can, I believe, be said of our moviemakers.

It’s a telling indictment on our society, but we (perhaps because of our movies, television serials, and satirical plays) have conditioned ourselves to be infatuated with the corrupt. In America the corrupt were always villains, so much so that those who played the stakes against them, even if they were dishonest crooks, were valorised as heroes. (Like Paul Newman and Robert Redford from The Sting, the conmen who won us over because they went up against a very dislikeable mob leader.)

The Americans taught us to croon over crooks as long as they were undoing bigger crooks. The problem with our directors and scriptwriters, today, is that our political culture is full of those bigger crooks. What we lack are the smaller crooks to be infatuated with. The closest to such a figure, from our history, was Saradiel. In the hands of our directors, however, he was never made out to be the Newman-Hoffman-Redford kind of hero. The television serial on Saradiel has none of the vibrancy or potency that Rienzi Crusz’s poems on him contain, to give just one example.

Watergate was, as Pauline Kael once idiosyncratically observed, the culmination of what the movies had been telling us. Frank Wills, the security guard at the Watergate complex, discovered the burglary at the DNC Headquarters on the night of June 17, 1972. The Godfather was released two months before, on March 15. Richard Nixon tendered his resignation on August 9, 1974. The Conversation was released three months before, on April 7. Francis Ford Coppola, who directed both, was one of the few prophets that Hollywood bred, surprising because Hollywood, with its preference for predictable, commercially oriented plotlines, despised prophets. Both those movies were about the underworld, in the mafia and within the government.

The intricate web those behind Watergate strung around it was, as I mentioned before, so well oiled that it was bound to come out. Sooner or later. I can’t help but feel that we are seeing this same process of unravelling, despite the best attempts of various corporate, political, and journalistic elites, with respect to the Bond Commission and Perpetual Treasuries. The signs seem to be there: days and even weeks of nothing happening followed by a sensationalist discovery, the most recent being Anika Wijesuriya’s submissions about the 165 million rupee penthouse deal.

We are like the America of the seventies: decency in politics today is the exception, not the norm. Because of the faith we have lost in those we elect, at times soon after they are elected, we repose our trust in those who reveal them for who them are. Journalists, once despised as harbingers of sensationalism (especially during the war years), are more revered now than ever before. They currently serve the function they served in the West after the Kennedy assassinations, Watergate, the Contras, and Monica Lewinsky: restore the public’s taste for the truth. A coincidence?

I for one think not. We revel in seeing the worst of ourselves reflected in the worst of those who hold public office. We are opposed to transparency because we want to lead private lives. Politicians can’t be like that, but politicians are as much the human beings we are. The Bond Commission, from its inception, was tainted by a sensationalist clamour for conspiracy theories, from its connection with Mahinda Rajapaksa (allegedly linked to Arjun Aloysius, nephew of the former Central Bank Governor) to its latest development, the penthouse deals. We are secretly as opposed to openness as those involved in this fiasco are, but we are also curious. The Bond conspiracy theories, going by that, reflect our desire to unravel, to demystify.

It’s simplistic to compare Bond 2017 to Watergate 1972. Except for one important point: like the latter, the former is driven by an inchoate mixture of mystery and discovery. Weeks, sometimes months, go by without anything being reported about the Commission. And then, just like that, it captures five column headlines. Just the other day I was reading about a concerted effort by both governing parties to oust the man at the centre of this fiasco. Whether or not that happens is something not even prophets are qualified to answer, but I wonder: will it unravel the way Watergate did through Bernstein and Woodward? Perhaps a movie, as prescient as Coppola’s or Pakula’s, might be just what we need. Until then, we can only conjecture.

Written for: Daily Mirror, August 1 2017