All the President's Men
Alan J. Pakula
William Goldman (Book: Carl Bernstein, Bob Woodward)
Dustin Hoffman, Robert Redford, Jack Warden, Martin Balsam, Hal Holbrook, Jason Robards, Jane Alexander, Meredith Baxter, Ned Beatty, Stephen Collins, Penny Fuller
PG (post-appeal rating); R (original)
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It was a decade of great political upheaval. The Vietnam War was spiraling out of control and one of the greatest political scandals in history was about to unfold as two courageous reporters dug deeply into it. All the President's Men is one of many films that tapped into that turmoil, but it may well be the best film to ever have done so.
Alan J. Pakula, a director who never really earned the prominence of Woody Allen, Francis Ford Coppola or Martin Scorsese, directors who came out of the '70s as legends. Yet, when you look at his highly successful oeuvre, you know just how important he was not only to the prior era but also that of the turbulent '70s. The film catalogs the evidence gathering that reporters Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) and Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) conducted leading to one of the most important take-downs in American history. Opening on a break in at the Democratic National Headquarters, a group of well funded thieves lead investigative reporter Woodward to an ever-escalating series of revelations. With high-powered attorneys for the defense and a list of names that eventually leads inside the Republican Party, Woodward smells a story that will define his career.
Being an inexperienced journalist at the Washington Post, Bernstein offers Woodward assistance eventually becoming his partner on the story as they crisscross the capital trying to hunt down shrinking and disappearing leads as a massive cover-up seals previously loose lips. As the list of suspects grows, the conspiracy's arms stretch farther and into more areas eventually leading to the White House
Despite a running time over two hours, the film never feels like its spinning its wheels. One revelation leads to another, each expanding a web of lies and intrigue that cover the entire city. Anyone familiar with history (or, at the time news reports) already knew what happened at Watergate. They know that President Richard M. Nixon resigned. This knowledge permits Pakula to tell the story without feeling compelled to spoon feed the audience. Yet in spite of himself, the richness of detail deepens our understanding of events. It celebrates the sacrifice and perseverance of journalists who strike out at information that might seem disparate and unrelated to the untrained, but when pieced together, explored, expanded and analyzed reveals compelling plots that expose corruption and keep the public informed.
Redford and Hoffman are perfectly cast. They have a youthful vigor that draws the audience into their struggle. Experienced thespians each, they never betray their craft to embellish their own images. These are performances that stand out without feeling showy. Both actors had the tendency to burst out from the screen and force the audience to accept their flawed characters, but in All the President's Men they understand the gravity of the information and dial back to give the audience a near-journalistic sense of realism. Their supporting cast share their commitment. Jack Warden as boss Harry Rosenfeld, Jason Robards as Editor-in-Chief Ben Bradlee, Hal Holbrook as the perpetually shrouded Deep Throat, Jane Alexander as a rattled bookkeeper and the rest each deliver rich performances that embellish the film. It's like watching a news broadcast or documentary of the events.
The film seldom feels dated. It's a perfectly crafted film that could be watched at any point in the future and still seem current. This is a film against which all political and investigative stories should be compared. Even films falling outside of those genres and styles could learn some lessons from All the President's Men. The movie doesn't delve into the final connection between corrupt party officials. It doesn't delight in exposing Richard M. Nixon as a liar and a crook. It doesn't go into lurid detail or unnecessary embellishment. It leaves off just as the Washington Post's credibility is being trashed. Bradlee must decide if he will stick by the story or, in the face of intense criticism, print a retraction. His decision contributes one of the most outstanding climaxes in history. Modern filmmakers have a tough time finding a way to end their films that lives up to the hype they've built to that point. All the President's Men not only launches out of the gate strong, stays compelling throughout, but it also finishes strong. It's one of the finest films ever made and I'm glad I finally got a chance to see it.
May 15, 2011