All The President’s Men (1976)
Director: Alan J. Pakula
The following Quick Daily Review is not nearly as quick as most. (Got a bit carried away with this one)
Type writers chatter away all throughout “All The President’s Men” in what is as straight up a “by the numbers” kind of investigative procedural as you might find on any given episode of Law and Order or any of those other generic detective shows that clutter the cable landscape. The only difference being of course that this is a journalist’s investigation, and not a police investigation. This movie puts you right in the moment. There is very little, if any music used for dramatic effect that I can recall. Most of the scenes in this movie are straight forward shots of Woodward and Bernstein slowly working out this case one interview at a time.
The subject here is the Watergate investigation that ultimately toppled the administration of President Richard Nixon. That happened in 1972. This movie was released in 1976, just one presidential term removed, when the images from the television were still relatively fresh on the nation’s collective consciousness. Nixon is not mentioned all that much in this movie. The aftermath of the Watergate scandal is pretty much ignored, except for a few shots of a TV set breaking the story at various points. To me, that was an effective choice because it put the focus on the investigation itself. At the time of course there was no need to drill in the effects of what this investigation had meant to the country. If this movie were to be remade today, the studios would probably require narration or text at the beginning or end carefully explaining the significance of what has happened to today’s teenage audience, for whom all this by now is akin to ancient history.
The famous duo from the Washington Post that brought down the most powerful man in the world is played here by Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman.
Hoffman and Redford don’t over embellish their performances too much, but their body language and tone of voice show the excitement and frustration that this prolonged investigation involved for them. In an early scene Bernstein (Hoffman) looks over Woodward’s (Redford) copy of the Watergate break in story, which he snatches from the editor’s desk without Woodward’s permission. He likes the story but has enough writers’ intuition to know that the body of the paper needs punched up a bit, which he proceeds to do. Woodward, in his first meeting with Bernstein in the movie grabs the paper and an argument ensues. Woodward winds up agreeing with Bernstein that his version is better. “I don’t mind what you did,” Woodward says, “I just mind how you did it.” From then on, the two are inseparable.
Another one of my favorite actors, Jason Robards (Once Upon a Time in the West) plays the chief editor of the Washington Post. He deserves as much credit in some ways as Woodwards and Bernstein for the Watergate story breaking. He took the heat even when the story went south for a while, and refused to throw his boys under the bus. The movie has plenty of fun scenes that are reminiscent of a Noir detective movie in which Hoffman, Redford, or Robards outsmart and outfox the various unwilling participants in this story that they encounter along the way. My other favorite scenes are the ones that show day to day life at a big Newspaper, including scenes with Robards helming the desk full of senior reporters discussing which stories deserve which page, with the front page of course being the ultimate goal. We watch as the Watergate story slowly moves from the back pages to the front over the course of the movie, with every breakthrough and setback along the way.
This movie provides as in depth and accurate a depiction of what it was like to a journalist for a big time newspaper in the 1970s as any movie is likely ever to accomplish. One of the faults of the movie is that it pays more attention and loving detail to that kind of accuracy than it does to telling a narrative story. This movie plays more like a quiet documentary than a film. I was engrossed the first time around because I was always waiting to see what piece of evidence was going to be the one to finally crack the case, but I don’t know how much repeated viewing of this movie I could endure after that. Being a history nerd, and aspiring journalist, I’m still glad I saw it once though. The underlying message of the movie about the importance of a free press and the dangers of unchecked power are as essential now as they were when this movie was released. This story and this movie likely launched untold thousands of would be journalists in the ensuing decades, and any movie that can accomplish that is truly a landmark achievement.