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The course of American journalism was affected by Alan J. Pakula's All the President's Men, the movie from Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward's book about the unraveling of the Watergate scandal in the pages of the Washington Post. Political battle lines in D.C. were unmoved, but for the general public this film (more than the original book) defined Watergate and the end of the Nixon presidency: Tricky Dick was brought down by Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford.
Those lucky enough to see the televised Watergate hearings back in the hot summer of '73 saw American politics play out in the form of a suspenseful soap opera with cliffhangers and surprise guests. Bald liars were tripped up in their testimony as if Perry Mason were on the case. But the conspiracy to bug the Democratic Campaign Headquarters had been really been unraveled in the previous year, largely by a pair of ambitious junior reporters dogging the biggest story of the decade. Unless you're a Nixon supporter who believes that Rose Mary Woods accidentally erased 18½ specific minutes of White House tape recordings, All the President's Men is a shining example of how the American system can heal itself, through the Freedom of the Press.
When it came time to make a movie of Woodward and Bernstein's best seller, the producers turned to problem solver William Goldman, who simply told the tale as a detective story, with dashes of newsroom camaraderie and a lively sense of humor. Viewers in 1976 didn't always follow the convoluted events on screen but they were riveted to their seats as the two Post reporters tried in vain to get somebody -- anybody -- to talk. Fortunately for them, "national security" provisions weren't what they are now. All Woodward and Bernstein had to deal with were uncooperative individuals. Today the reporters wouldn't even be able to approach the front doors of prospective informants without being subject to arrest. Woodward and Bernstein come back time and again. Many of Nixon's minions apparently also thought of themselves as above the reach of the law, and underestimated the tenacity of the news hounds on their heels. As "Deep Throat" says at one juncture, "These aren't very smart guys."
The film plays as a series of anecdotes that eventually put Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward (Dustin Hoffman & Robert Redford) on a trail of a secret illegal campaign program by the Republican Party's C.R.E.E.P. (Committee to Re-Elect the President). A number of burglars are caught red-handed breaking into the Democratic Campaign Headquarters in the Watergate Hotel. The burglars are a mix of Cuban operatives and functionaries with connections to the C.I.A.; a couple of them carry the phone numbers of Republican campaign staffers. Initially discouraged by their own editors, Woodward and Bernstein run down leads that convince them that the Republicans maintain a secret fund to carry out illegal dirty tricks against Democratic candidates, and that the trail of money and contacts leads to the Attorney General and the White House. Bob Woodward is given some guidance but no direct help by a secret contact with the code name "Deep Throat" (Hal Holbrook). Carl Bernstein bluffs and wheedles important information from a stubborn official in Florida. With The Post's publisher Ben Bradlee (Jason Robards Jr.) breathing down their necks -- the articles are beginning to suggest that the Nixon administration is engaged in criminal activity -- Woodward and Bernstein cross-corroborate their sketchy information between sources and establish a firm link to the White House. Investigations are announced, and the undoing of the Nixon presidency begins in earnest.
Screenwriter William Goldman's achievement in All the President's Men is to make this complicated subject into a coherent story without unduly distorting the facts. Many would say that casting two top stars, including the romantic idol Robert Redford, already distorts the facts, but Goldman doesn't cheat. Woodward never seduces anybody or even bats his blue eyes to get attention. To be honest, in the slightly grainy docudrama style given the film by cameraman Gordon Willis, Robert Redford looks a bit awkward. Even he can't look very good in bushy sideburns, wearing slightly flared bell bottomed slacks, a style guaranteed to make anyone with normal legs look terrible.
What we mostly see is Woodward and Bernstein rushing about scritch-scratching in little notebooks and trying to fathom what the heck is going on. As reporters for the "enemy" publication, every assistant in town has been told not to talk to them. They play phone games with librarians that first give information, then deny that they had the information and then deny that any phone conversation ever took place. Yet the press is still shown more respect than it is now. They can actually get important Republicans to talk on the phone, even if the dumbfounded responses are often unusable: "Oh Jeezus, you aren't going to print that, are you?" Woodward and Bernstein end up debating what does or doesn't constitute a denial in an interview. "The Boys", as their superiors at the news desk call them, are indeed persistent. They'll keep coming back to the doorstep of an important source even after being begged to stay away. Some sources feel like disloyal informants (a real concern) and others fear for their jobs, or worse. The Boys cajole a female colleague into dating a contact as a way of grabbing more exclusive information. Investigative journalism isn't an exact science, but these guys operate in an ethical gray zone.
Star power energizes the show and Alan Pakula's speedy pacing also helps, but what we now notice is that Hoffman and Redford behave like an only slightly subdued comedy team -- Laurel & Hardy, or Abbott and Costello. The nervy Bernstein fidgets and pries and sticks his nose where it doesn't belong, while Woodward galumps in his big feet, takes clumsy notes and more or less plays the straight man -- at least until he loses his temper with Deep Throat. Bernstein gripes about the paper's policies as Woodward acknowledges that they haven't gotten enough information or sources to make a particular claim; editor Harry Rosenfeld (Jack Warden) has to step on Bernstein once in a while. Publisher Bradlee need only shoot a withering glance Bernstein's way to shut him up. But both reporters come off as smart and personable .... and "cute". If Woodward and Bernstein began as humble journalists, their heads had to swell up at least a little. This is all fine, except I know I'd scream bloody murder if a big Hollywood movie celebrated the second Bush presidency and cast funny & lovable movie stars to play real-life personages I consider to be villains. So it would be wise to consider the objections of conservatives that might think All the President's Men is a valentine to America-hating left-wingers.
That's enough time for consideration -- this film is more than fair to the opposition. When they film my life story, I think Leonardo diCaprio should play me, unless someone better looking comes along.
Alan J. Pakula had just directed what is perhaps the most paranoid political film of the 1970s, The Parallax View, which makes it all the more pleasant to report that All the President's Men isn't another conspiracy film about a mysterious conservative "they" taking over the country, moo-ah-ha hah. The cloak and dagger element is restricted mostly to Woodward's midnight meetings with Deep Throat, and one or two instances where the reporters wonder if they are being followed. The film's eventual tone is one of nostalgia: the supposed 'paranoid' '70s were actually much less constrictive time in terms of individual rights. Politicians gave the press a measure of respect and Washington business as usual wasn't a daily game of Gotcha. Nowadays the C.R.E.E.P. bozos wouldn't need slush funds, nor stumblebum operatives that bring address books with them to the scene of the crime: now there are plenty of paramilitary 'security companies' to hire, if one doesn't already have an "in" with one of the many secret goverment security agencies. A modern Woodward and Bernstein would never be able to search for a money trail or paper trail without a fistful of subpoenas and search warrants. Today, the only way a lot of supposedly public information can be made public is through informants and leakers.
The biggest joke on Nixon seems to be that all of his Watergate shenanigans, the White House tapes and the G. Gordon Liddy nonsense was totally unnecessary -- the Democrats' disorganized presidential campaign self-destructed without outside interference. All the President's Men spawned a generation of investigative reporters looking for The Big Story, not realizing that their entire profession, along with its important role of speaking truth to power, would eventually be dismantled, pink-slipped and denigrated by a new generation of media-savvy political tricksters.
At almost 2 hours and 20 minutes the film races along, giving us a terrific parade of name actors in minor roles. Martin Balsam, Jane Alexander, Ned Beatty and Stephen Collins have slightly larger parts, but a long list of appearances will have you running to the IMDB to verify faces or remember exactly who some of them are: Meredith Baxter, Penny Fuller, Robert Walden, F. Murray Abraham, Lindsay Crouse, Valerie Curtin, Polly Holliday, James Karen, Neva Patterson, Penny Peyser, George Wyner. All the President's Men is so powerful that it survives what is technically a very soft finish. As the Watergate story never resulted in one final scoop, the story winds down without an immediate climax. Pakula shows the boys typing away as a swift series of teletype news readouts shows more of the "President's Men" folding under pressure, and the culpability climbing toward the White House. It's not exactly cinematic, but it works beautifully.
DVD Blu-ray of All the President's Men is an accurate presentation of this impressive film, yet another 1976 release that should have won for best picture over Rocky. As stated above, Gordon Willis filmed the show in the then-popular docudrama mode that left the image with a patina of intentional grain. The Blu-ray rendering is less grainy than original release prints, but is not intended to be a thing of beauty in the neon-lit newspaper office (apparently copied from the real Post building) or in the dank parking structures, where all we can see of Deep Throat is sometimes the lit end of his cigarette.
The Blu-ray special features lead off with a commentary by Robert Redford, who clearly has a strong feeling that All the President's Men is his most important movie. Old and new making-of documentaries are present that give a rich account of the special circumstances under which this film was made. And a newer docu covers the eventual unveiling of the true identity of "Deep Throat". Finishing up the extras are an original trailer and a Jason Robards appearance on Dinah Shore's talk show, before he won the Oscar for best supporting actor.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
All the President's Men Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.