Among the many excellent films about politics, All the President's Men stands out. Its urgency and passion put the viewer directly into one of the crucial moments in modern American history, a loss-of-innocence time when the political landscape shifted irreparably and that caused shockwaves strongly felt ever since. All the President's Men is inextricably tied to the fascinating story that it depicts and it's stunning how timely the film is today.
If anyone doesn't know the story of All the President's Men, it centers around two Washington Post reporters, Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) who fight for the opportunity to investigate a bungled break-in at the national Democratic headquarters in the Watergate office complex. The burglars, dressed in business suits, don't fit the usual breaking-and-entering profile and the reporters suspect that something more is going on. While few others care about the story, Woodward and Bernstein follow leads, cold-call hundreds of people, and plead with shadowy informants until the story unravels a web of conspiracy that brings down the president. That it's all true makes the story even more incredible.
Watergate, as the overall controversy became known, is the buzzword for deep government conspiracy. But back in 1972, when the film begins, administrative shenanigans were sort of an unspoken secret among the inside-the-beltway DC elite. President Nixon in particular was known to be paranoid and vindictive and minor espionage between warring parties wouldn't really surprise anyone in the know. But this sort of thing was rarely reported, especially in the midst of a heated election cycle. During the early stages of the Democratic primaries, with the endless Vietnam war raging on, a number of candidates duked it out for the votes of the disaffected masses, including Senator Edmund Muskie, Senator George McGovern, notorious Governor George Wallace and Representative Shirley Chisholm (the first ever black woman to run for president.) A controversial memo in which Muskie insulted Canadians knocked him out of the race and McGovern became the candidate. The "Canuck" letter, like the Watergate break-in, was just another in a string of dirty tricks to undermine the Democratic candidate. Woodward and Bernstein begin to suspect that all these events are connected and follow a trail of cash to unearth who's behind it all.
The thing that makes the film so fascinating is that, even at a healthy 138 minutes, it's streamlined to an extreme. All the President's Men is all about business, with none of the distracting subplots and romance that many lesser films would have included. It's as driven as the reporters it depicts. There is a real sense of momentum as the minor burglary story picks up steam. Woodward and Bernstein hit roadblocks often along the way, but their doggedness and their contacts help them move past them time after time. While the editing style is patient (long takes of the reporters sitting on hold or typing are shocking in today's era of furious cutting and thirty-second scenes), it still builds tension and excitement. This is absolutely the epitome of old-fashioned filmmaking: Tone, pacing, suspense and character.
In fact, the portrayals of Woodward and Bernstein, as distinct as they are, are achieved with a real economy of style. There are no patronizing backstories or personal life subplots to water down the mission at hand. The few personal moments feel adlibbed and almost subliminal (a comment about smoking, a gag about a cookie) but rather the personalities and profiles of these two characters are developed strictly through their journalistic methods and their interplay. Woodward, the fact-obsessed WASP and Bernstein, the gut-feeling nebbish, clearly clash both in style and character, but the film shows their partnership growing and strengthening. Hoffman and Redford do an amazing job showing how two very different personalities with a similar goal can slowly become one functioning unit. They finish each other's sentences, instinctively play good cop-bad cop, and push each other to hone their craft. Watching the interplay between these two outstanding actors as they do some of their very best work is really exciting.
A film of this scope doesn't succeed on the backs of just its stars, however. Everyone associated with All the President's Men operates at the top of their game here, starting with Alan J. Pakula, the film's brilliant director. Unfortunately Pakula's name doesn't have the kind of cultural cache of 70's contemporaries like Scorsese, Coppolla, Altman and DePalma, but it should. During that decade of great filmmaking he made three of the darkest, all three dripping with corrosive atmosphere and conspiratorial intrigue. 1971's Klute had a most modest story, but infused every scene with dread and worry. 1974's The Parallax View is one of the very best paranoia thrillers, and its reporter-against-the-system storyline presages All the President's Men in interesting ways. His work in President's Men is self-assured and incisive. There are few moments that telegraph their cinematic intentions, yet every moment in the film is perfectly designed to tell the story and develop the characters. Pakula provides his actors with tiny cues, doubtlessly culled from meticulous research (minute props like Bernstein's bicycle wheel or a lone crutch propped against the wall in Woodward's apartment), somehow add to the depth of these characters without Pakula needing to use a heavy hand. His touch here is nearly invisible while the film still feels extremely cinematic and perfectly constructed.
A lot of the credit for the film's effectiveness also goes to cinematographer Gordon Willis, who defined the look of a generation of great movies with his work on the Godfather films as well as all three Pakula films mentioned. Willis' use of light and darkness in all those films is extraordinarily sophisticated. His Hollywood nickname "The Prince of Darkness" stems from his willingness to paint with shadows, often obscuring details that less bold cinematographers would be afraid to lose. Actors' eyes become caverns of secrets and garages and apartments alike are so dim that the viewer has to strain to make out even the most mundane details. Willis and Pakula use darkness in nearly all their settings as a way of enveloping Woodward and Bernstein in the unknown. Then they flood the newsroom of the Washington Post (an exquisite piece of set design) with flat, unforgiving light: A beacon for the truth without shadows; no place to hide.
So much of this authenticity is ingrained in William Goldman's masterful script, adapted from Woodward and Bernstein's book. Cutting such a tremendous wealth of information down to a manageable film script must have been no small task and Goldman really nailed it. He infuses the film with suspense and cinematic rhythm but doesn't pander or turn it into something less complex than it needs to be. There's no pat Hollywood storytelling here. It's a real tightrope walk between content and style and Goldman manages it perfectly. There are a lot of names to keep track of but even if you fall behind the script communicates the basic idea of what's happening and the momentum of the film keeps you afloat. Like the best, most thoughtful films, All the President's Men becomes richer on repeat viewings, as the machinations of the script become familiar and you're better able to appreciate the details and the nuances.
Helping keep the overall quality of the film consistent is the huge cast of actors playing the various newspaper editors, campaign workers, administration aides and informants who make up the guts of the Watergate story. Jason Robards plays Post executive editor Ben Bradlee (a larger-than-life figure) with dignity and authority, but also with a gleam of conspiratorial excitement in his eye which indicates that he sees a little of his own ambition and background in journalism in the pluck and determination shown by his reporters.
Robards (whose role takes up only a few minutes of screen time) does more with a red pen or a walk through the newsroom than many other actors could do with pages of dialog. The rest of the Post editorial staff is populated with classic tough-guy actors (Martin Balsam, Jack Warden) who help give the profession – at the cross-roads between old-fashioned shoe leather reporting and modern celebrity journalism - its bite.
Theater legend Jane Alexander plays an employee of the Committee to Re-Elect the President who Bernstein questions about the conspiracy in a couple of short scenes that cut to the heart of the story. Her reluctance to talk is almost painful for the audience to watch: She clearly wants to speak but she's afraid and confused. She doesn't trust Bernstein and seems caged behind her fear (at first she's shot through the bars of a staircase banister) but she offers some of the investigation's best information. Alexander, like everyone in the film, works with a real economy of acting. Her pursed lips and vulnerable eyes tell a full story even when she barely says anything.
The film also features excellent short performances by Ned Beatty and a few actors familiar to TV viewers from the later on: Meredith Baxter (Family Ties), Lindsay Crouse (Buffy The Vampire Slayer's professor Walsh) and Stephen Collins (Seventh Heaven). Collins in particular strikes the balance of personal guilt and conflicted loyalty. His performance reeks of disappointment, anger, sadness, and fear.
Perhaps the most notorious role in the film, however, is that of Deep Throat, the notoriously mysterious source of some of Woodward's most incendiary information. Woodward contacts Deep Throat by positioning a red flag on his balcony and meets him late at night in a dark parking garage. These scenes, which have become a part of our culture, pop and otherwise, are all about atmosphere and dread: They ooze the darkness of secrets and lies. Hal Holbrook, who plays Deep Throat, must not have had much to go on when creating this character (the actual identity of the real Deep Throat was one of American society's most intriguing secrets until he outed himself last year) but his work here is singularly intriguing. He doesn't go for the obvious cloak-and-dagger kinkiness that the scene seems to suggest. Instead he comes off as a dignified, intelligent man who is just so angry at his government (and himself for his mysterious role in it) that he can't contain himself any more. Even so, he rarely offers Woodward any information outright, instead offering to confirm or deny leads that the journalist discovered on his own. The Deep Throat scenes are classic and have clearly influenced many filmmakers since.
There is another class of actors whose work in the film is integral to its success: The voice actors who Woodward and Bernstein question over the phone. All the President's Men contains some of the most interesting phone conversations in film history, from Woodward's bizarre conversation with Kenneth H. Dahlberg, a fundraiser for Nixon's campaign whose money mysteriously ended up in the bank account of one of the Watergate burglars, to Bernstein's head-spinning talk with a White House librarian who changes her story with every sentence she utters. These unsung performers add so much to the film and aren't even mentioned in the closing credits.
A bold move on the part of the filmmakers was to avoid visualizing many of the people being investigated. Nixon's smiling face is glimpsed on TV screens but the rest of the names tossed around by Woodward and Bernstein remain outside of the scope of the film. The audience is given the same access as the reporters: Slammed doors and hung-up phones. Every aspect of the film is geared towards putting us in their shoes, and it works beautifully. From every performance, no matter show short, to every perfect line of dialog, to every dimly-lit image, All the President's Men is a perfect work with nothing on its mind but an urgent, desperate quest for the truth.
The anamorphic video is fantastic. While the film shows the amount of grain appropriate for both its age and style (so many scenes are so dark) overall the picture is just fantastic. The print is clean and the colors are dead-on - not too saturated but still vibrant and true. The opening shot of the film (an extreme close-up on the fibers of a piece of typewriter paper) has a clarity and crispness that is really stunning. An outstanding presentation.
The Dolby Digital mono soundtrack is also excellent. The film is very quiet for much of the running time and David Shire's pulsing score is kept at a minimum, so it's a bit of a muted track. Given the mono nature of the recording, voices are not as rich and dynamic as they might be in a newer release, but they are clear and understandable. The film actually won the Oscar for best sound, so the sophisticated use of voices and everyday sound-effects (typewriters, telephones, car engines, atmosphere), as well as its smart use of silence, is key to the film's power.
Warner Brothers has included a really excellent set of extras in this second DVD release of All the President's Men. The first disc of this two-disc set includes the film, which is accompanied by Robert Redford's commentary track. Redford offers a lot of insight into the film and the characters behind it but he's also redundant at times and there are some gaps. While it sounds like the commentary was recorded as a sort of interview, the interviewer has been edited out, leaving the proceedings a little choppy at times. It might have been better to have left the other participant in or to have paired Redford up with another name participant – either someone else from the film or a journalist who might have something to add. There are a lot of other people who would have made dream commentators (Pakula died in a bizarre car accident in 1998), like Woodward and Bernstein or Bradlee. Even the real Deep Throat, who identified himself before the DVD was produced (more on that later) could have participated. What a spectacle that would have been! Or how about someone with a decidedly different perspective on all this, like G. Gordon Liddy? I'd love to hear that. So the Redford commentary isn't quite the banner headline that this film could have had, but it's solid. Particularly interesting is how involved Redford was in the story himself: He didn't just star in the film, he also produced it. But far more than that, he contacted Woodward and Bernstein while their investigation was still young and, when hearing that they intended to eventually write their book from the perspective of the burglars, suggested that they write it from their own perspective. Redford really was integral to the creation of All the President's Men long before the story had even begun to play out.
The first disc also includes trailers for the film as well as a few other Pakula films: Klute, Rollover, Presumed Innocent and The Pelican Brief.
The second disc is loaded with documentary pieces. The first three are recent productions and were created by the same team: Telling The Truth About Lies is an excellent 28 minute feature on the process of making the film and adapting such complex events to film format. It includes interviews with the stars as well as the real Woodward, Bernstein and Bradlee. Although it repeats some information from the commentary track it's really an excellent addition to the set. There is a lot of discussion of the various details that went into giving the film its incredible authenticity. There is also a nice section about the work of Pakula and Willis in the film.
Woodward and Bernstein: Lighting the Fire (18 minutes) discusses the journalists and their work investigating the controversy, but even more so the piece serves as an admonition of lazy modern journalism and the complacency of a public who, caught up in the massive amount of nonsense reporting, allows corruption to pass unchecked. While it risks sounding preachy at times, the idea is that Watergate wouldn't be the story today that it was then because politicians are allowed to shape the news and because the public is cynical enough to assume that the hidden inner-workings of Washington are just part of the system and not something to worry about. It's clear that a finger is being pointed at the Bush administration and its famously secretive nature, but really a broader point is made about the declining value Americans place on real, hard news.
Out of the Shadows: The Man Who Was Deep Throat (17 minutes) discusses the career of Mark Felt, the number two man in the FBI during the early 70s, who met with Woodward in secret and who hid his role in Watergate until 2005. But the segment also serves as a defense of unnamed sources, a journalistic mainstay that has been under attack lately because of the Judith Miller-Scooter Libby controversy. Felt had his own reasons for helping Woodward expose the Nixon administration (He was passed over for promotion to the top spot when J. Edgar Hoover died) and some call his motivation into question, which is the tricky thing when it comes to unnamed – and unaccountable – sources. Felt unfortunately doesn't contribute to the piece but journalism legends Walter Cronkite and Linda Ellerbee do, as do several notable others. These supplemental pieces are all notable for including a variety of points of view. They may be somewhat short but they do a great job of giving a sense of the scope of the story and the mix of motivations involved.
A pair of vintage pieces round out the set: Pressure and the Press, a behind the scenes documentary from 1976, and an interesting interview with Robards from the Dinah Shore show.
A key political film, All the President's Men is something that every serious film viewer should see. It's taut and engaging as a film and it's essential as American history. It manages to be definitive and minimalist at the same time. Thankfully Warner Brothers did a fine job with this release. Given the recent resurgence in politically motivated films like Syriana, The Constant Gardener and Good Night, and Good Luck audiences are lucky to have a chance to revisit this defining moment in film, politics and American life.