FILM REVIEW: All The President's Men (1976)

All The President's Men (USA, 1976)
Directed by Alan J. Pakula
Starring Dustin Hoffman, Robert Redford, Martin Balsam, Hal Holbrook

1976 saw the release of two great films about journalism which remain gripping and compelling even though the professions they examined have long since changed dramatically. In one corner, we have Network, a film which anticipated the move towards ratings-driven TV news with a career-best performance from Peter Finch. In the other corner, we have All The President's Men, perhaps the greatest film ever made about print journalism and one of the all-time greatest thrillers.The first miracle of All The President's Men is that it manages to be a superbly tense conspiracy thriller even though we already know what the conspiracy is. Films which attempt to capture the political or social zeitgeist (in this case the fall of Richard Nixon) either date very badly or are often found wanting dramatically; they presume that there is no need to do the legwork, since we know how it ends even before we start.

All The President's Men gets the balance absolutely pitch-perfect between the facts and the drama. Robert Redford, who also produced the film, insisted that everything that played out on screen was factually accurate, to the point of liaising between screenwriter William Goldman and the real-life journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein to ensure that every detail was correct. Those of us who are knowledgeable about Nixon and Watergate can watch the film and admire how well all the pieces fit together and all the facts are checked, while those less familiar will soak up all the information, admiring the work of the journalists and the screenwriter, who conveys all the twists, turns and dead ends.Being this factually accurate pays off in dramatic terms for two reasons. Firstly, it means that the film's political stance, if it has one, is not so blatantly obvious that it weighs the action down, as with Redford's Lions for Lambs. But more importantly, it demonstrates that the filmmakers have confidence in the material, believing the truth to be so extraordinary in its own right that to dress it up in Hollywood convention or other such artifice would do the audience a great disservice.Because the film is so relentlessly focussed on the story, the audience become like junior reporters following Woodward and Bernstein around, desperately trying to keep up and learn on the job. Like real-life journalists we are receiving information from a range of sources with varying degrees of reliability, to the point at which we almost feel the need to take notes. The dialogue is rattled off at a pace which makes even The Social Network look choreographed and considered.Unlike so many contemporary thrillers, All The President's Men manages to be so completely understated, keeping a lid on things and building tension throughout its running time. All of the big revelations come out through small tics in the dialogue; there are no great swathes of exposition to remind the audience what has happened so far. It takes us two hours to get to Deep Throat finally telling Woodward what he wants to hear in the car park; like Woodward, we have had to earn this information through patience and perseverance.The sense of tension created by the revelation of events and the pressure on the characters means that the film has no real need for action set-pieces or choreographed thrills. The closest things approaching action sequences are little pops of paranoia surrounding Woodward in the last hour - the disturbance in the car park, or the two journalists typing out their conversations for fear that they are being bugged. That's not to say that set-pieces in themselves are a bad thing, or a sign of dumbing-down in Hollywood movie-making. But All The President's Men simply doesn't need them - it does things the hard way, which turns out to be the smart way and the right way.It would be very easy to praise this film on purely nostalgic grounds, coming from a time when thrillers didn't have to end with explosions, and when there was 'proper' investigative journalism instead of commercially-minded, celebrity-saturated hearsay. But the makers of All The President's Men would not accept this rose-tinted view of journalism, and the film specifically warns not to take such days for granted. Long before Rupert Murdoch's empire-building, the conflict between money and the truth was present, and crucially the truth didn't always win hands down.
There are several arguments in the film about the freedom of the press and its independence from the state and government. This conflict is present in the initial disagreements between Woodward and Bernstein which govern their different styles of reporting. Woodward is the newcomer who believes in facts above everything else; he types up his article, only for Bernstein, the seasoned hack who likes something with flair, to polish it behind his back.

In one scene about halfway through, the two reporters are in a car arguing about the difference between fact and gut instinct. Woodward use the example of snow falling overnight, or a man stopping and asking for directions, to demonstrate that one cannot simply rely on logical presumptions to be sure that something happened. Bernstein's responses, while broadly in agreement, belie a disagreement between substance and style, graft and guesswork which would come to shape the industry.As a paean to 'proper' journalism, the film is a lot more subtle than something like Good Night and Good Luck, which used stock footage of Joseph McCarthy to hammer its point home in every scene. And unlike George Clooney's film, All The President's Men does a brilliant job of showing the fear and intimidation involved in the profession and practice of journalism. This is present throughout Woodward and Bernstein's work, from the persistent refusal of people to go on the record, to the pressure coming from their bosses who are staking the reputation of their paper on what could be an entirely spurious story. Woodward and Bernstein are forced to balance their own personal ambitions within the paper, the desire to protect people from exposure and ruin and the need to tell the truth - something which is no easy task.All The President's Men is also masterful at making the very act of writing exciting. As I mentioned in my review of Adaptation, it is very difficult to put the physical act of writing or typing on screen in a manner which is genuinely cinematic. But Alan J. Pakula achieves this in his directorial style, which is completely unfussy and marked by great attention to detail. So accomplished is his direction that you almost don't notice it, which might explain why he is so underrated as a filmmaker. The tension he builds makes one focus on all the random doodles on Woodward's notepad, and the typing scene is very well-paced.The performances in All The President's Men are all front-page material. Robert Redford is great, proving that he was more than just the pretty face from Butch Cassidy and The Sting and carrying himself with poise and conviction. Dustin Hoffman gives some of his best work as Carl Bernstein, resisting the temptation to 'over-method' as he did in Marathon Man the same year. And there is a terrific supporting role for Hal Holbrook as Deep Throat. Holbrook, best known for his appearance in The Fog, brings a murky edge to the character which not only conveys the danger of his situation, but leads you to believe that he is no good either.All The President's Men is a proper thinking-person's thriller with great direction, superb performances and an impeccable script. Though the worlds of both politics and journalism may have changed, the film's ideas and approach remain as fresh and bracing as they were 35 years ago. Whether as a paean to journalism or an argument for political accountability, a debate about the nature of truth or a thrill-a-minute drama, it succeeds on every conceivable level, resulting in a movie for the ages.

Rating: Photobucket
Verdict: A conspiracy thriller worthy of the front page


Reel Popcorn Junkie said...

All the President's Men is a gripping film with a long line of great performances from the leads and supporting talent such as Jane Alexander, Robert Walden and Stephen Collins.

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