Saturday, February 7, 2015

CANON OF FILM: "ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN"

ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN (1976)

Director: Alan J. Pakula
Screenplay: William Goldman based on the novel by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein



I think it's reasonable to presume that most people who, probably finished high school in America, at some point got around to watching "All the President's Men" in some government or history class. I know I did, at least once, probably more than that, although by that time it was already a film I'd seen at least dozen times over. As a politically-astute member of the Liberal Democrats, it was always a source of personal inspiration for me. I watched the movie the night after John Kerry conceded the Presidency; it was my go-to cheer-up movie. Some days, it still is, however somedays it feels more and more like, an idealized history lesson, not of the Watergate scandal, but of the way journalism used to be. It's strange actually, Alan J. Pakula's "All the President's Men" came out the same year as Sidney Lumet's "Network" and you can look back and really think that those two films were the past and future of the news industry would become. Or, if you're not that romantic, one film is what journalism should be, and the other is what journalism became.

I think you have to start the conversation about the film by talking about the process of investigative journalism, because that's what the movie ultimately is, the process, the minutia, the details, the investigative tricks that Woodward and Bernstein (Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman) were involved in. We don't learn too much about either person during the film, very little of their personal lives in fact, but we do zero in on the details of the investigation. The tense phone calls on multiple lines and keeping track of the notes and then getting door after door being slammed in their faces as they can't seem to find out anything. That's actually quite smart since the appeal of the movie was that everybody knows (Or should at least) what's inevitably going to happen, the movie is about how it happened, not what, and therefore it was smart to stick to the mundane details. Tracing the paths of names up and up, there was so many people involved and the names get mentioned one after another that even I sometimes forget the exact order the events play out. Woodward & Bernstein weren't exactly sure what they were uncovering as they were uncovering it even.

There are so many people involved, and the names get mentioned one after another so much that even I sometimes forget the exact order this plays out, and I’m an expert on the Watergate Scandal. The truth of the matter is, even Woodward & Bernstein weren’t sure exactly what they were uncovering when they were uncovering it. Notice how Woodward, in a scene with Deep Throat (Hal Holbrook) doesn't even consider that Nixon might be in on it. And why should he have, this was unknown territory at the time, and they were still a long way from the White House tapes and from this scandal really breaking; half the time, the story didn't even make the front page of the supposedly liberal Washington Post, as they argued with their editor Ben Bradlee (Oscar-winner Jason Robards, Jr.) about it.

Curiously, despite eight Oscar nominations, including four wins, Redford and Hoffman were curiously for their performance, only Robards and Jane Alexander's work as their informant, credited only as "Bookkeeper" got acting nominations, probably because those performances seemed like they required the most acting, but really Redford and Hoffman are so into their roles, that frankly, we don't even notice that they're acting, and these are two of the biggest movie stars of the time, especially Redford. It's easy to think about the "His Girl Friday"-type world of high stakes, high energy reporting in movies, but here's a weird example in which we're getting the laborious work involved in reporting or any professor, and somehow we are on the edge of our seats. The film should be ranked as an editing accomplishment from Robert L. Wolfe as much as it is for William Goldman's Oscar-winning script, or for George Jenkins & George Gaines incredible production design, recreating the Washington Post offices so precisely, they even brought in Washington Post trash to fill the trash cans.  "All the President's Men" is an expert course on how to be engrossed in a movie the same way a thriller engrosses you, despite the entire film encompassing of people talking to other people, sometimes face-to-face, sometimes over-the-phone… No explosions or anything of that sort, but we are inclined to watch this every step of the way, always compelled, always entertained, even if for Woodward & Bernstein, it's the day-to-day work for them, only one day, they took down the President of the United States. Didn't mean to, they were just following the money. More than that, they were following the investigation.
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