DVD Review Of All The President’s Men
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 5/18/07
Alan J. Pakula’s 1976 hit film All The President’s Men is as good an example of a filmmaker as craftsman as there is. Pakula was never a great director/auteur, a man with a ‘vision.’ Rather, he was a journeyman filmmaker who tried to best shape whatever scripts came his way. The film is a good one, but it falls shy of greatness because it is a film that is all surface level. Yes, it digs deeply into the Watergate Conspiracy that brought down President Richard Nixon, but it never allows us to get inside its two lead protagonists, the then-unknown and now universally famed Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward (Robert Redford, who also produced the film, with Walter Coblenz) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman), who walked into the biggest journalistic story of the last fifty years. Yes, they were good, solid young reporters, but neither their writing skills nor drive was what separated them from dozens of other reporters. It was just dumb luck, or so the film portrays, for never do we get a glimpse of what makes either man tick. Yes, we get tics and obsessions, sloppiness and manic cigarette and coffee consumption, as well as posturing, but little more, and this is likely the reason that neither star was nominated for an Academy Award, although the film, itself, garnered eight of them. It won for Best Supporting Actor (Jason Robards, as Washington Post Editor Ben Bradlee), Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Best Sound and Best Adapted Screenplay, by William Goldman. It also got nominations for nominated for Best Supporting Actress (Jane Alexander, as a key informant), Best Director, Best Film Editing and Best Motion Picture.
The downfall of Richard Nixon is so well known that to detail it, in this film’s context is superfluous. This is why, however, the decision to focus on the relationship of the reporters was wise. It’s the result of that focus that ultimately fails, even if the film is still suspenseful and fast moving enough to provide enough gloss to cover that narrative deficiency. Yes, we get an extraordinary glimpse into the nuts and bolts of how stories were dug at and reported in the old days, including how the Post’s rivalry with the New York Times affected reporting and business decisions, before blogging and celebrity news displaced real journalism, yet there is something elegiac about the film. The book was based upon the 1974 book that the two reporters wrote, of the same title.
The timeline of the film is from the June 17th, 1972 break-in at the National Democratic Headquarters at the Watergate Hotel just up to the 1973 second Inauguration of Richard Nixon. Along the way, they are guided and misguided by their own wits, egos, disgruntled employees, and a mystery man known only by Woodward, and called Deep Throat. Only in 2005 was Deep Throat revealed to be former FBI Associate Director W. Mark Felt. Names are bandied about that are known to historians now, but rather obscure to the younger generation, and this is a flaw in the film. While it may have slowed the film down upon its release, for that information had great currency, today the film seems almost hermetically sealed to younger viewers, and the flaw in that approach has to be laid at the feet of screenwriter Goldman, who apparently never envisioned his film being viewed many years later. The film’s flaws, in this context, stand out especially against the Oliver Stone film, Nixon, made twenty years later, wherein many of the same events are depicted, yet we are always contextualized and brought close to them by our prism through the world as Richard Nixon saw it. We never get a similar context via the two leading character’s eyes on the events they witness.
Redford and Hoffman, of course, do get to the bottom of things, even as they bicker along the way, for Hoffman is a radical Jewish Democrat with good reportorial and writing skills while Woodward is a Republican WASP who is new to the business. They clash when Bernstein rewrites a story of Woodward’s, and Woodward reluctantly admits Bernstein improved it, but after that they work seemingly seamlessly as a pair, as they spar with Bradlee and two other editors, played by veteran actors Jack Warden and Martin Balsam. Other great cameo appearances are given by such notable character actors as Ned Beatty, Hal Holbrook, Stephen Collins, Meredith Baxter, Robert Walden, and Polly Holliday.
The two disk DVD, put out by Warner Brothers, has the film on Disk One, along with a hit and miss commentary from Redford. Redford seems to have taken some sleeping pills, for he is too laconic in his rather rote and praise-filled comments. Little technical matter is discussed, and long silences of several minutes fill the commentary. The first disk also has theatrical trailers from this film and several other Pakula directed films. The second disk has the really meaty extras, such as Hal Holbrook narrating the documentary, Telling The Truth About Lies: The Making Of All The President’s Men, a featurette on Woodward and Bernstein’s impact on modern journalism, and a featurette on Deep Throat, W. Mark Felt. There’s also a vintage 1976 making of featurette called Pressure And The Press: The Making Of All The President’s Men, as well as an interview excerpt of Jason Robards on the old Dinah! daytime talk show of Dinah Shore. Having suffered through decades of lame and lamer talk show hosts like Oprah Winfrey, Rosie O’Donnell, Regis Philbin, and Ellen Degeneres, the interview with Robards shows how far superior talk hosts like Dinah Shore and Phil Donahue were to them. The film is shown in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio.
Yet, despite the flaws of the script, the real story is so gripping that the film is definitely worth viewing, even at 138 long minutes, and even if its greatest merits are all technical- such as its ending with teletype machines writing of Nixon’s downfall, or the film opening in utter fog- the perfect metaphor for both the viewers’ and the reporters’ states of mind. Roger Ebert, the famed film critic, probably framed the film’s problem best when he wrote:
All The President’s Men is truer to the craft of journalism than to the art of storytelling, and that's its problem. The movie is as accurate about the processes used by investigative reporters as we have any right to expect, and yet process finally overwhelms narrative- we’re adrift in a sea of names, dates, telephone numbers, coincidences, lucky breaks, false leads, dogged footwork, denials, evasions, and sometimes even the truth….yet they don’t quite add up to a satisfying movie experience. Once we’ve seen one cycle of investigative reporting, once Woodward and Bernstein have cracked the first wall separating the break-in from the White House, we understand the movie’s method. We don't need to see the reporting cycle repeated several more times just because the story grows longer and the sources more important. For all of its technical skill, the movie essentially shows us the same journalistic process several times as it leads closer and closer to an end we already know. The film is long, and would be dull if it weren’t for the wizardry of Pakula, his actors, and technicians. What saves it isn’t the power of narrative, but the success of technique.
Exactly. The real stars of the film are not Redford and Hoffman, but its music editor- David Shire, film editor- Robert L. Wolfe, but most especially its cinematographer- the great Gordon Willis. The film is loaded with virtuoso work by all three, such as Willis’s above the heads zoom shot out from the rotunda of the Library of Congress where Woodward and Bernstein pore over documents; other zoom outs from the men’s car to shots of Washington D.C., as the men’s voices banter in the voiceover background; bird’s eye exterior shots of the Watergate break-in, where the light inside seems warm and orange, while from outside it is blue, dark, and threatening; the almost Stygian feel that the garage where Woodward meets Deep Throat gets, to the point that even the slightest noise augurs evil; and split screen shots that achieve the effect through naturalistic elements in the frame, rather than being imposed from without. The sound, especially in dialogue, where it overlaps, is a great example of virtuoso reality in an age when such was far more difficult to do than now. Then there are the smaller things, such as the differing looks that the two heroes of the film have versus their older, more seasoned colleagues, the almost automat feel of the recreated Washington Post newsroom, in its harsh geometric arrangements under fluorescent lighting, and other great moments, too numerous to list.
Yet, despite its flaws, this film has to be considered important, and a success, as well as unfortunately relevant in light of the many current abuses of power under President George W. Bush, whose attempt at starting an Imperial Presidency after 9/11, with the consent of the majority of the American people and Congress, makes Nixon’s power grab, in the face of rabid hatred for the man, seem almost quaint, if not desperate and pathetic. All The President’s Men is not a great work of art, but it is a good and interesting one, as well as a cornucopia of bravura filmic techniques that artisans of the cinema should find invaluable for decades to come, almost as much as journalists and historians will find the film valuable for their own reasons. Unfortunately, the film viewer is the odd man left out in this equation. Yes, the film entertains, but as a tale it leaves one hungrier than when one started it. Oddly, this very same sort of feeling is what likely compelled its protagonists to their calling. Would that the viewer only got as just a desserts as they did.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on The Moderate Voice website.]
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