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All the President's Men Review

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by Chris McEneany Mar 1, 2006

    All the President's Men Review
    The background to the story of All The President's Men is, by now, extremely well known. For most people, even if they do not know the, admittedly, complex conspiracy that rocked the American government and eventually toppled Nixon from the Presidency, just the mention of the word Watergate puts them immediately in the picture of hush-hush CIA and FBI shenanigans, shadowy whistleblowers and valiant journalists who put the truth before anything else, including possibly their lives. That Nixon was a crook in charge of a vast slush fund paying for espionage and covert operations that even targeted American nationals such as political opponents, is now a matter of factual history. But just how comprehensive and deep-rooted this network was is still a point of fascination and on-going investigation for many. Its uncovering was a long, arduous and eventually dangerous job for two crusading journalists working for The Washington Post, who stumbled onto the story by virtual accident, but hung with it through thick and thin, anchored by a gut instinct and an almost Holmsian determination to get to the truth behind a veritable wall of silence. The repercussions of all this became a disgrace for some, a point of pride for others. But for Robert Redford, it became an inspiration that he couldn't resist bringing to the screen.

    “When you've got 'em by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow.”

    Based upon the book of the same name written by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, the actual two journalists who unravelled the scandal, Redford produced the movie that no-one else in Hollywood was actually interested in making. The whole Watergate story had, by this time, been extensively covered by the world's press and the book, itself, had become a bestseller. There was a feeling around Tinseltown that it was now old news and that nobody wanted to hear any more about Nixon's lunacy. But Redford saw in the saga a whole new slant that could be exploited - the plight of the journalists themselves. Even Woodward and Bernstein were perplexed by this as they, along with the rest of the world, had been blinkered by the end product, the crusade and not the crusaders. Redford believed that the chalk-and-cheese personalities and the methods and attitudes of the two reporters would carry the over-saturated story into a different realm. He was right. With a screenplay written by the esteemed William Goldman and direction from the measured and clinical Alan J. Pakula, All The President's Men (1976) went on to win four Academy Awards, including one for Goldman. The gamble had paid off. This new 2-Disc Special Edition from Warner Brothers enables us now to re-evaluate the film and its importance.

    “Car 727. Car 727. Open door at the Watergate Office building.”

    When a break-in at the offices of Nixon's opponents during the re-election campaign goes awry, and a very bizarre bunch of bumbling miscreants are apprehended at the scene, the hairs on the back of Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward's (Robert Redford at his most naturalistic) neck stand up. He doesn't know why, but there's more to this case than meets the eye. His instincts have him cover what appears to be a strange, but hardly earth-shattering story, but circumstances soon have his brain brimming with unanswered questions and facts that don't add up. With names and phone numbers linked within a picture that is much, much bigger than he can imagine, he begins an investigation that is painfully akin to hunting a needle in a haystack ... except for one thing. He doesn't even know what that needle looks like. He's got clues scattered everywhere - connections and false leads, people with secrets, others to terrified to talk to him - but no idea what they are pointing towards. Along with fellow reporter Carl Bernstein (another brilliantly realistic performance from Dustin Hoffman) he begins to run features in the paper that bring mass speculation to the public and embarrassment to the government. Clearly there is something sinister going on, and it seems to have connections running all the way to the top. What started out as merely the potential bugging of a rival candidate's office soon has Washington, and its seat of power, the White House, incriminated in things that could blow the Nixon administration apart. With doubts, denials and discouragement from all around, the duo persist in their quest to get to the bottom of the conspiracy, refusing to give in even when their editors and the chief of the paper begin to get cold feet. Woodward's shadowy, and infamous, source of information, known only as Deep Throat, dangles tantalising snippets of incriminating fact, leaving trails for the reporters to follow, steering them in the right direction. But, as the investigation gathers momentum, so does the threat to their own personal safety. When you stick your nose into a hornets' nest, it is liable to be stung. But for Woodward and Bernstein, the mission is to get the story, come what may. And to get it right.

    “I don't mind what you did. I just mind the way that you did it.”

    The difficult trick to pull off with a film like this is maintaining a level of suspense when the audience already knows the outcome of the story. But Pakula and his stars keep the tension sustained by playing it on-the-level and matter-of-fact. The style is almost documentary in tone, the direction unforced and deliberately calm and steady, with Pakula content to sit alongside the actors and just let the film unfold under its own steam. The performances, by the leads at any rate, are completely realistic, with numerous stutters and verbal trips amid nicely naturalistic, overlapping dialogue. The film revolves around the telephone, with an untold number of scenes playing out with either Redford or Hoffman cradling one between their chin and shoulder whilst scribbling down notes and cryptic doodles to the accompaniment of numerous clacking typewriters. On its own, it is hardly exciting, but the plot develops its own rhythm, the ebb and flow of each new twist seeming to arrive in real-time, and usually in the middle of a conversation. We learn as Woodward and Bernstein learn. Mostly, they don't even realise what they've just found out, and the pleasure comes as both we and they seek to make sense of these kaleidoscopic communications. Without fuss or obvious tension-cranking, the pulse quickens when we and Bernstein realise that the person on the other end of the line has just been gotten to. Likewise, when Woodward connects a series of disparate names like a daisy-chain has each successive person taking a sharp intake of breath at being found out. And the nagging puzzle as to what it all amounts to just keeps throwing out more mysteries with each new break they get. It is a classic detective story - and it is probably best viewed as such, too.

    “I'm afraid your articles have just scratched the surface.”

    When the pair go door to door, chasing up the dozens and dozens of Re-election Committee members, the futility of their endeavour seems all too apparent. Washington may come across as Birmingham on steroids - it's all very drab, grey and wet - but Pakula and cinematographer Gordon (The Godfather) Willis throw in a couple of cool shots that track upwards from our heroes to reveal how tiny they are when compared to the vast and colossal institution they seek to infiltrate. One great visual moment has the camera ascend to the ceiling of the library leaving the two as specks at a table far below. On the rare occasions when they go out on the warpath, the buildings of High Office fill the frame, dwarfing them. The dynamic between the pair is extremely credible, as well. Hoffman's chain-smoking Bernstein is all nervous energy, his reporter over-caffeinated and excitable. He is the most energetic of the pair - the Starsky to Redford's Hutch. He manifests his passions outwardly, with expressions, agitations and rapid-fire verbals. He's certainly the more immediately likeable of the two - less austere and serious than Woodward - and a little bit more humorous. He is able to use charm where Woodward can only be blunt and quite clear in his intentions. The two even affect a good-cop, bad-cop type of routine later on as desperation begins to take hold. Redford plays Woodward without his trademark charisma, keeping his emotions held in check and presenting the character as a man who literally lives for the job. For the story. And he is excellent. Early scenes of him pestering a suspicious face in the courtroom play up his single-mindedness perfectly. And the moment when he challenges Bernstein over his proposed re-writes reveals a stark dedication to the job that pervades his entire performance. But, it is when we see him on edge, when the threat becomes all-too apparent and the inevitable paranoia sets in, that he is at his most electric. His meetings in the shadows of underground garages with the elusive Deep Throat, played by a partly obscured Hal Holbrook, are undoubtedly the film's highpoints. Effortlessly recalled in The X Files, with its Cigarette-Smoking Man (there's even the name Scully on the Committee list for those of you who fancy starting your own conspiracy theory), these meetings add the delicious frisson of subterfuge and danger to the mix. Pakula plays on the mystery of Deep Throat and the unease of his chosen rendezvous with understated angles and an atmosphere that is cloying, and rife with cloak and dagger espionage. Both Woodward and Deep Throat know that they have gone out on a limb but, like moths to a flame, they cannot resist the allure of the crusade.

    “The story is dry. All we've got are pieces. We can't seem to figure out what the puzzle is supposed to look like.”

    The machinations of working on a busy newspaper are the most convincing that I've seen, without a single trace of the clichéd editor barking his orders or strutting about his empire demanding headlines. As The Post's chief Ben Bradlee, Jason Robards (who received an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor with the role), is the epitome of a man who has worked his way up the ranks. He knows his staff and the trade inside out. The management discussions about the latest stories are dealt with in casual, workaday style, the round-table meetings as unspectacular as a convention of fly-fishermen. Robards commands them with the air of a seasoned pro, conveying a sort of weariness coupled with a profound sense of duty and, ultimately, loyalty. As do Martin Balsam and Jack Warden as the editors on Woodward's and Bernstein's seemingly far-fetched story. However, this is where I feel that the film is slightly let down. All these actors, even Robards (whom I have always admired) seem to have forgotten that the idea of the film is for realism and authenticity. Oh, they all perform extremely well - Robards even collecting that little gleaming statue for his efforts. But when the two main stars are playing their roles as if they really are Woodward and Bernstein, and not just going “this is me acting the part of an investigative journalist,” it seems somehow disappointing that Robards, Balsam and particularly Warden are happy to approach their roles without the same desire for convincing realism. I don't know - I mean it may just be me - but they all seem fake when compared to Redford and Hoffman. Even Stephen Collins (Deckard from Star Trek: The Motion Picture) manages to convince as the Committee treasurer Sloan - a young man troubled by what has been going on and prepared to say his piece, although clearly afraid and unsure about it all. As does Ned Beatty, whose smug-but-guilty Mr. Dardis crops up on another nefarious list. And Hal Holbrook takes what could have been a fantastical character in Deep Throat and inhabits him with a cold reserve that only barely masks the vulnerability that he, himself, feels.

    “Somewhere in this world there is a Kenneth H. Dahlberg, and we've got to get to him before The New York Times does!”

    When I first saw this film, a long time ago, I came away thinking that it was a movie completely without a score. And indeed, David Shire's music for All The President's Men is monumentally subdued. Redford makes reference in his Commentary to Shire being slightly miffed that he was only required to compose a single theme. But, watching the film again, reveals that his simple, repetitive signature theme, that plays at key junctures during the film, denotes, by turns, the heroism of the crusade, the dogged unstoppable nature of the two journalists, the ominous sense of the wider, sinister implications of the investigation and, by the end, it becomes apparent that it has provided a reassuring heartbeat for the film and its story. With dialogue the main tool, or weapon, All The President's Men doesn't need much else to propel its crafty, insinuating tale. And the unobtrusive style of Pakula steps almost completely aside for the performers to make magic of what, in other hands, could have been an exceptionally dry and tedious drama. A great film that shows what a skilful screenplay and a clutch of believable characters in believable situations can achieve. I have no interest in politics whatsoever, but Redford's pet project is damn fine storytelling. By adhering to the documented facts of the investigation, and by virtually lifting entire conversations from genuine memories, the film completely avoids any, and all, Hollywood-style over-dramatisation. And, in a story about a far-reaching conspiracy and a series of lies, deceits and double-dealing, this stands as a beacon for clinically incisive, committed and intelligent filmmaking.