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Film Review: All the Presidents’ Men

All the Presidents’ Men (1976; Directed by Alan J. Pakula)

The pre-eminent cultural document of one of modern America’s most notorious political scandals, All the President’s Men treats the Washington Post’s gradually-accumulating Watergate investigation as the detective story it was. Visually arranged with clear-eyed economy by noted conspiracy-thriller director Alan J. Pakula from a script by William Goldman (writer of The Princess Bride and Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid), it proceeds with irresistible inertia and charm and not really a whole lot of simmering liberal outrage.

Oh, wrong house. Sorry to bother you Mrs... I mean, Mr. Hoover.

Indeed, considering the characterization of the Watergate investigation in general by movement conservatives as being driven by a liberal ideological vendetta against the reviled Richard Nixon, there’s nary a hint of partisan affiliation at all in Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s reporting efforts. Indeed, Robert Redford’s Woodward even confesses to being a Republican to assuage such doubts raised by a potential source. Liberal Hollywood can be nothing if not careful when it comes to covering their collective political tracks in the effort to appeal to as wide an audience as possible, and this is evident here, despite the charged subject matter.

What the film does accomplish is the nearly-instant mythologizing of the reporting of “Woodstein” (a portmanteau for the two junior reporters amusingly coined by their irascible editor Ben Bradlee, a role which won Jason Robards a Best Supporting Actor Oscar). What ensues is a complex and intermittently tense narrative pitting plucky, smart good against smug, powerful, faceless evil, complete with plenty of earnest but reticent conservative functionaries agonizing over whether to reveal the extent of their own knowledge of official wrongdoing.

Its depiction of the moral agonies of the upper-middle-class aside, All the President’s Men is iconic for more simple cinematic reasons. There’s memorable visual touches, like the long crane shot pull-back of the reporters poring through documents in the Library of Congress, or Woodward’s deeply atmospheric meetings with “Deep Throat” in a parking garage at night (both of which were parodied in a classic episode of The Simpsons). The dialogue is not as demonstrative in its cleverness as other Goldman scripts could be, but it skews towards sharp realism in its exchanges. So many of the key plot moments are marked by razor distinctions in language, and so much convoluted and clandestine detail from the book upon which it is based must be boiled down into more basic filmic terms, that Goldman’s task was more to be precise and careful than to wheel free with unfettered wit.

I hate trusting anybody... especially those of you in the Academy.

We also have the stars, Redford as the presentable, stand-up Woodward and Dustin Hoffman as the hyperkinetic, suspicious Bernstein. Their portrayals have settled the respective public profiles of this most famous reporting team in American history for all time, although their subsequent career paths have helped that process. Woodward has become a venerable scion of Serious Journalism, regularly offering milquetoast conventional wisdom on current affairs talk shows and most recently penning sober stenographical non-exposés from inside of the Bush Administration, whose wasteful pre-emptive wars based on false premises and illegal detention and torture regime puts that infamous “second-rate burglary” in perspective a bit. Bernstein is not exactly a non-establishment figure, but has shown a more consistent distrust of institutions than Woodward has since Watergate, at least. One can mostly extrapolate their professional trajectories from the way the actors have approached them as characters.

If the film has a particular problem, it’s with how it ends, with the clacking teletype exposition of the eventual unraveling of the Watergate cover-up that led to Nixon’s historic resignation as President. The more specific focus that Goldman and Pakula have chosen makes for the tighter film, but also prefigures a story larger and more unwieldy than film narrative can quite accommodate (some of the more bizarre details of the larger story can only be hinted at; Kenneth Dahlberg’s apparent evasive tactic of claiming to be traumatized by his neighbour’s kidnapping drops like a joke, but he wasn’t kidding, she really was kidnapped for a ransom). As with much of the political world, the truth is not only stranger than fiction but more labyrinthine and multifarious as well. Even as All the President’s Men displays an understanding of this, the film pushes for simplification whenever it can. As such, strong as it is, it’s more of an engaging synopsis of Watergate than a comprehensive document of it. Could a movie be anything more, or anything less?

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Categories: Film, Politics, Reviews
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