The Best Investigative Movie of All Time

If you’re the kind of GM who hosts inspirational movie nights for your players, my number one suggestion for getting them in the GUMSHOE mindset has to be All the President’ Men (Alan J. Pakula, 1976.)

It reinforces the two most important tips players need to get into the mindset of investigators and successfully solve the complex mysteries the game system specializes in:

    * Keep learning more

    • * You gotta talk to people

    Made gripping by Pakula’s masterfully subtle direction, the William Goldman script zeroes in on one thing and one thing only—the process by which reporters Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) find the facts that connect the burglary of the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate hotel to the highest levels of the Nixon administration. We see exactly nothing of the protagonists’ private lives. They get scarcely a sliver of backstory—just enough to identify them as underdogs we want to see succeed. It’s all about the information gathering.

    Along the way Woodstein, as the team comes to be known, learns a third axiom of investigation that applies more to some GUMSHOE games than others. Their secret source Deep Throat tells them to:

    • * Follow the money

    Bernstein speculates his way to a correct theory of the case almost immediately. But they have to prove it to print it. Together or separately he and Woodward try to pry from scared or otherwise unwilling participants confirmations they can use. They engage in a delicate cat and mouse with reluctant witnesses. Their interview technique suggests a new GUMSHOE Interpersonal Ability called Doggedness. They worm their way into encounters with resistant informants, then rely on social norms to win a grudging, often partial, admission, by continuing to ask questions despite repeated refusals.

    When one dirty trickster, Donald Segretti, seems weirdly pleased to unburden himself, it plays as a comic twist on the already established pattern.

    The movie also demonstrates a great technique for depicting a difficulty or stymied investigation. At several points the duo hits a wall and has to dig in and keep on digging. Pakula shows the stalled progress without ever killing his film’s momentum. He does this by always making the visual depiction of the arduous legwork aesthetically pleasing in some way. The best example of this occurs in the Library of Congress, as an overhead shot pulls back further and further from the two as they sort through a stack of documents. Becoming smaller and smaller in the frame, the characters are visually dwarfed by the monumental scope of their task. As viewers, the beauty and ingenuity of the shot keep us riveted.

    Steal this technique in your games by montaging the PCs through a segment of numbing legwork with a quick and entertaining verbal flourish. You might create one yourself, or invite the players to supply the narration that then bridges them to the next core clue.

    The film is now available in a fine BluRay transfer. Its ample special features supply historical context on the entire Watergate story for anyone who needs it.


    GUMSHOE is the groundbreaking investigative roleplaying system by Robin D. Laws that shifts the focus of play away from finding clues (or worse, not finding them), and toward interpreting clues, solving mysteries and moving the action forward. GUMSHOE powers many Pelgrane Press games, including Trail of Cthulhu, Night’s Black Agents, Esoterrorists, Ashen Stars, Mutant City Blues and Fear Itself. Learn more about how to run GUMSHOE games, and download the GUMSHOE System Reference Document to make your own GUMSHOE products under the Open Gaming License or the Creative Commons 3.0 Attribution Unported License.

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