Bryan Young demonstrates how to add layers to your scenes by analyzing a classic scene in All the President's Men that showcases the genius of William Goldman.
William Goldman was one of the great screenwriters of all time. His loss this year will be felt for a long time by anyone who has ever studied the structure and construction of movies. In this column, we hope to examine the structure and anatomy of scenes that are, for lack of a better word, perfect and Goldman crafted a lot of them.
To my mind, All the President’s Men, based on a stunning true story with a brilliant screenplay from Goldman, is one of those movies full of these perfect scenes. It’s a film that brings the elements of character, plot, and drama together in a way that is undeniably right.
The first scene I want to go through is one that comes during a particularly trying time in the film.
For those unaware, this film tells the tale of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, The Washington Post reporters who cracked the Watergate story in the 1970s. Now, looking back on the Watergate scandal and Nixon’s resignation, it all feels like one big victory, but getting to that point was marked by a series of defeats.
Here’s the scene we’re talking about as it appeared in the film:
This is Woodward (Robert Redford) and Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) reporting to their skeptical editor, Ben Bradlee (Jason Robards) about where their investigation is at.
Immediately preceding this scene, a salesman is trying to sell Bradlee on features his papers doesn’t need and the salesman in shooed out of the office. This might seem like just a funny bit of business but really helps establish that everyone wants Bradlee’s attention. He’s important.
And Woodward and Bernstein are literally nobodies at the paper and no one thinks the story they’re working on is going to lead anywhere.
“Hey, what did you guys want?” Bradlee greets them. There’s a warmth to it, but this line helps us further understand he’s busy with no time for nonsense.
When Woodward drops what he clearly thinks is a bombshell and it lands with a thud, the scene gains tension. It’s right there in the writing. Instead of letting Bradlee react with a “Great, the story is going somewhere,” he tells them to sit down, almost as though he’s going to lecture them about something. His patience is wearing thin.
Woodward and Bernstein then dump exposition on us, but it’s not a bad thing. This isn’t just them giving it to us as the audience, the function of the info dump is them trying to assuage Bradlee’s skepticism.
Bradlee is incredulous. “What else besides the money, where’s the goddamn story?”
The editor’s patience is broken at this point and neither of our heroes are quite prepared for that. This revelation was their ace in the hole and it’s not met with the enthusiasm they’d asked for this man’s time for. They’re skating on thin ice and share a pause and a look to exemplify that.
“The money is the key to whatever this is,” they tell him.
“Says who?” Bradlee fires back.
There’s a lot of character work going on here in this moment. Woodward and Bernstein aren’t accustomed to being challenged this directly. When they speak to each other and say something is important, they mean it and understand it. But here, under the keen observation of their editor, they become unsure. But this says so much about the world of journalism as much as anything else, right?
They need to get the story right. And if the editor can’t connect the dots, then the reader isn’t going to be able to either. And they’re dealing with fire because the stakes are so high: either the paper or the fate of American democracy.
At this point, Howard Simons (Martin Balsam), the managing editor, breaks in with the story of Deep Throat, describing him as a garage freak and Woodward’s source in the Executive Branch.
And you can understand Bradlee’s incredulity as he utters one of the best lines of the film: “Garage freak? Jesus. What kind of crazy fucking story is this? What did you say?”
In such a short space of time, the editor has gone from warm and friendly to really annoyed and skeptical faster than a race car going from zero to sixty. Then he hits them with the truth of the matter. He’s defending them in public, but there’s just nothing to their story yet.
There’s something tender about his confusion and introspection that turns their revelation into a footnote and he looks up at them hopefully and says, “What else you workin’ on?”
He doesn’t want them to fail, but he doesn’t see a way out of it.
Bernstein stumbles, looking for some hopeful avenue and offers a solution, but it’s not good enough. Woodward’s excuse is that they haven’t had any luck yet.
“Get some,” Bradlee tells them tersely. A perfect punctuation mark on the scene that’s only enhanced by the curious pause followed by a return to a facsimile of Bradlee’s kindly self. “Anything else?”
And that’s it.
This is one of those scenes that function as something that is often overlooked in a lot of fiction I read and movies I watch. Those little moments that serve to spell out what it is the protagonists are doing while putting up more obstacles in their way and raising the stakes. The scene turns the emotion for them as well. The scene begins with a laugh and they think they’ve got something big, and when they leave their determination has grown because they’ve been rebuked in the kindest way possible.
Too often I’ll see scenes like this in books or movies and a character will literally say something like, “Let me get this straight…?” And the only purpose for it is so that the writer can restate the obvious for the audience, and that’s boring. It’s bad writing.
But in this context? They have to go to their superior who pokes holes in their arguments and meets what they think is solid information with incredulity they can’t print. This is a minor defeat in their cycle of trying and failing. They wouldn’t have even called this meeting if they didn’t think they had something.
The scene also adds an undercurrent of trust between them, which adds a weight to their quest. Bradlee, this person they respect and fear, trusts them and has gone out on limbs to defend them. If they come up with nothing, they’ll be letting him down as well.
Scenes like this can be throwaways in stories, but don’t let them be. Add layers. This brings exposition, character building, an expectation of consequence, and a mini-defeat to our characters. All in such a short space. Think about moments like this and how you can bring more meaning to them.
Interestingly enough, this scene as written in earlier drafts of the script didn’t include Bradlee at all. Woodward and Bernstein were initially speaking with Kay Graham, the owner of The Washington Post that Meryl Streep ended up playing in 2017’s The Post. She was excised from the film completely in favor of having Bradlee here to guide them. Whether that was for production considerations, logistics, or just to make a better scene, I’m not sure, but the scene as written here is definitely stronger than the earlier iterations. It’s another reminder that a scene is never finished until it’s shot and you can always improve it.
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