Movies Everybody Should See – All The President’s Men
Once a week here at TWBT we will be discussing a movie we agree everyone should see at some point in their lives. For the most part we will try to avoid the really obvious choices (The Godfather, Citizen Kane, Die Hard, etc) as their reputations are such that if you are at all interested in film you’ll already have seen them, or you will be aware you probably should. In certain cases an obvious classic may be discussed if we think we have something new to say, or just really want to talk about it, but by and large we are looking at films the casual film fan may not have seen. This list will run the gamut as we’ll be looking at older films, foreign films, genre films, cult films, exploring the whole diverse world of the movies.
This weeks entry is…
All The President’s Men.
So, youngsters, I’m about to insult your intelligence…. Once upon a time there was this thing called the Watergate Scandal, and that scandal, stemming from a break in at the Democratic National Committee in the Watergate Office complex, went all the way up to the White House and the President of The United States himself, Richard Nixon. It turned out that Nixon had been wiretapping his political opposition and using the FBI and the CIA to do so. When all of this came to light almost seventy people were indited and forty eight of them were found guilty, which resulted in Richard Nixon stepping down as head of state. It was a scandal that rocked the world and has coloured our opinion of politicians to this very day, as well as cementing the suffix “gate” as the term attached to any and all scandals (David Cameron and PigGate being the most recent…. and hilarious). It was, to put it lightly, kind of a big deal.
All The President’s Men follows the two journalists who brought much of this information to light, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein (played by Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman respectively). This is the story of their story. What starts out as a small investigative report into a break in soon becomes something that threatens the entire nation’s political system. And that is all it is about. William Goldman’s (one of the great scriptwriters, who also wrote Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid, Marathon Man, The Princess Bride, and the adaptation of Stephen King’s Misery) script cuts all extraneous material out. It is lean as hell. There are no subplots about how this story impacts the personal lives of Woodward or Bernstein (although the suggestion of its impact is deftly woven throughout. This is a film where the background details tell as much of the story as the dialogue). There are no car chases or government assassins. No shootouts or femme fatales. It is just two reporters following leads to get to the bottom of a story. Some of it is mundane. It is meant to be. Until it becomes clear exactly what Woodward and Bernstein have stumbled onto, they spend most of their time being frustrated and bored. But when it starts to come together, the tension amps up.
Director Alan J Pakula somehow imbues great tension into scenes that sound like they should be weightless, like a simple phone call with a librarian, or a conversation in a parking garage. The garage scenes where Woodward goes to meet his source, the unfortunately named Deep Throat, are the most iconic in the film. Deep Throat, played with a chilling detachment by Hal Holbrook, is seen only in shadow, and pops up whenever Woodward needs pushing in the right direction. The character is somewhat of a deus ex machina, except he can’t be as he existed in real life, and did what he does in the movie.
There are times when the sheer amount of names getting thrown around as possible conspirators get too vast to keep track of, but the film is constructed in such a way that it doesn’t matter. It is easy to get lost in the minutia of the investigation but the thrust of the narrative and the strength of the characters pull you along regardless. The characterisation in All The President’s Men is subtle but effective. Most of it is achieved through the performances from two of the greatest actors Hollywood ever produced. These aren’t big, flashy performances. They are more impressive than that. They are small, but full of depth. Entire personalities conveyed in a glance or reaction. We get to know the men at the Washington Post through the smallest of actions. The film doesn’t have time for detailed scenes of exposition where we learn the full backstories of everyone involved, so instead we get tiny moments that clue us in to who these men are. Woodward and Bernstein start off bickering but soon come to see how their talents combined will get them further than on their own. Woodward is a grafter, finding the story but unable to tell it in a way that pops. Bernstein is his opposite, a little looser with the facts and quick to jump to conclusions, but he knows how to write a story. One of the strongest moments of characterisation is Woodward’s reaction to Bernstein rewriting his story without telling him, “It’s not what you did. It’s the way you did it.” You know all you need to know about him from that. Every character gets a similar moment.
Alan J Pakula’s direction keeps the action from going flat, which is impressive considering the bulk of the film is two reporters on the phone. His use of sound in the film is superb. The Washington Post is a constant cacophony of clattering typewriters and ringing phones. It is the most realistic depiction of working journalists ever put to film. That office feels alive, constantly abuzz with the craft of breaking news. Pakula uses depth of field so well here, filling every frame with information. Sometimes foregrounding important details, sometimes placing them at the back of the frame. It keeps us searching for the story. There are two shots in the film that I adore. The first occurs in the library as the investigative duo are rummaging through slips looking for names. The camera is above them looking down and it pulls further and further back revealing the layout of this vast room. The room is made up of concentric circles. Layers. As Woodward and Bernstein are just beginning to realise how deep this thing goes. That’s some visual storytelling right there. The second shot comes at the end. Foregrounded is a television playing Nixon’s inauguration and way at the back of frame Woodward and Bernstein are working away at their typewriters. The 21 gun salute beginnings firing in the inauguration and the shots ring out over the sound of the keys of the typewriters. The message is clear: With that story, these men are firing the shots that will bring down the President of the United States. It’s a great final image to a great film. A thriller without the bits we’d class as thrilling, and yet it remains as tense as any in the genre.
Further viewing – If you like All The President’s Men you should check out…
Nixon. Oliver Stone’s way too long, but still worth a watch, look at Richard Milhouse Nixon. Anthony Hopkins is a revelation in the role, that paints the man as wracked with self loathing yet surprisingly idealistic.
Three Days of the Condor. Robert Redford is a CIA researcher who comes back from lunch one day to find every one of his colleagues shot dead. He goes on the run and tries to figure out who is responsible and why. It’s good stuff.
Frost / Nixon. After Nixon stepped down he was pardoned by Gerald Ford. He didn’t receive any punishment of any kind. The public wanted an admittance of guilt. The closest they got came in the unlikeliest of places. David Frost was a British television personality who wasn’t exactly known for hard hitting interviews, which is probably the reason why Nixon agreed to be interviewed by him. What follows is a battle of wits between Frost and Nixon as one tries to find the truth and the other dances around it.
Come back next week for another Movie Everybody Should See when we’ll be discussing Cameron Crowe’s classic Almost Famous.