All the President’s Men (1976, Alan J. Pakula)

!!! A+ FILM !!!

Does All the President’s Men contain any useful emotion for the here and now or is it just for Watergate obsessives? Is Alan J. Pakula’s movie full of ambiguity, sophistication, grays, shadows, or is it just a screed, a time capsule? Is it a partisan political movie or a dynamite movie about journalism? Being unreasonably obsessed with both President Nixon and the scandal itself — I can’t get enough, it’s one of my favorite things to read and learn about, maybe the pretend amateur sleuth in me — these are things I have to take into account. For certain, the book of the same name is one of the most fascinating and breathlessly suspenseful nonfiction works ever printed, especially about American history. But let’s pretend I’m not me for a moment. Does the film transcend all this? And if we stop pretending and I’m me again, does the film live up to my critical eye in the post-Mark Felt era?

I personally (along with, well, lots of other people) think the movie is a resounding success, and that’s being mild. It’s a masterpiece, one of the strongest and most exciting thrillers ever made, one that plays stunningly well today, because it is so clinical and so atypical of what typically works in a film in or outside of Hollywood. To begin with the surface stuff, it is audaciously entertaining, and surprisingly artful: it’s evocative but minimalist, precise but haunting. What separates it from so many other movies like it is that it’s just beautiful. The way cinematographer Gordon Willis, so renowned for his use of darkness and emptiness in The Godfather, makes Washington D.C. look so gothic and sinister is, in a word, stunning, and integrated perfectly with the inside-out nature of the cover-up — dialogue driven as it is, it’s a tale told visually. The shots of needle-in-haystack Washington, or of young and hungry crack Post investigators Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein alone in a mountain of data, are only the beginning.

And if American politics are of no interest to you, if the inconsequential nature of Watergate and the heroic whistle-blowing and the big signposts for journalistic integrity just make you shrug your shoulders, you will have no trouble approaching it as a detective story, and a thoroughly gripping one. The flood of information, names, times and places that will come hurtling toward you may confuse you quickly if you’ve not read the book or you’re not familiar with the complexity of the scandal, but director Pakula and screenwriter William Goldman do a marvelously economical job of subtly indicating what matters, so no matter how lost you may think you are, you never really are. Once you go back and read the book, which you will want to and you really ought to, the film will provide even more immersive and, of course, troubling pleasure on a revisit — troubling because there’s a lot of Banality of Evil stuff here, injustices committed from florescent-lit office buildings and their unshadowed corners; and that’s with Nixon himself barely appearing in the film.

Probably a lot of the feeling of witnessing history one gets from this — and it’s an enormously exhilarating feeling, present throughout — comes from the perfection of the performances by Redford (his best part ever, perfect for him) as eager Bob Woodward and Hoffman as sardonic Carl Bernstein. Redford, juggling phones and fighting hard, even upstages Hoffman, who gets the real Bernstein’s slight sliminess just right. The supporting cast is of comparable import, all believable enough to sell the camaraderie and minutiae of what feels like a real newspaper staff. Jason Robards’ Ben Bradlee is a masterwork, full of toughness and warmth and completely bereft of sentimentality, none of the kindly-boss shit here, lit on fire with his legs casually resting on a nearby chair, the heaviness of Watergate falling on his eyes but mostly just making him grin a bit more. Jack Warden and fellow 12 Angry Men alum Martin Balsam fill in the Post background, with Ned Beatty and Hal Holbrook in delightfully sinister cameos. But every weirdo from the book is enlivened memorably, so much so that you’re left with the impulse that real life couldn’t possibly live up to this, a fascinating complement to the impression one gets from Woodward and Bernstein’s own work — that this is all more fantastic than any novel.

Of course it’s all a little trumped up: Pakula uses the film lexicon to make his points the same way any director might when covering a more distant time. He borrows from film noir, from action films, from thrillers, from hardlined drama to create the Newspaper Flick to End Them All. But the material he’s working with is so fascinating, so pregnant with possibilities and menace, that the movie scores on virtually everything it attempts. It is almost exhausting to watch so many great ideas used so well. The source material is magnificent too, but Pakula illuminates such recent history with proper subtlety and an eye for detail that make this a world you feel seeped in; Watergate might not be truly high drama that affected all of humanity, but the film makes it seem like it is. It’s almost unquestionably Pakula’s best.

But it doesn’t belong to Pakula, nor to Hoffman and Redford, nor even to Woodward and Bernstein. Even more so than the Warner Bros. dramas of the ’30s, this is the premier installment of a new idea of sorts, the Movie for the People. Its vitality, not its subject matter, is the reason it still has so much importance now. The movie doesn’t really have intimately drawn background characters (even as the actors in minor roles seem scarcely to be acting), it doesn’t stretch itself for historical context (which is all the better), because the true story of Watergate is so spectacularly weird it almost seems hypothetical, a textbook theory about the system working. All the President’s Men is a message to the public, and it’s still universal and pressing… and moreover, as gripping and entertaining as movies get; that it lost the Best Picture award to Rocky is still pretty shocking. (Though frankly, Network makes things complicated.) And I still refuse to believe it’s really 138 minutes. It feels like it could go on for so much longer without wearing out its welcome. Instead, it shows remarkable restraint by stopping short at the moment when the outcome seems clearest — Nixon’s glare out onto an adoring crowd while two men type away, the clampdown sealing his fate as he shakes hands with his own victory. It’s hard not to wish that our history could always be so righteous and just; don’t underestimate the delight in that smirking cluelessness of the future ex-president; don’t underestimate how much you can feel that this is somehow your triumph, too.

[Originally posted as part of a longer piece on the Warner Bros. DVD of this film in 2007; some portions slightly modified or updated.]

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