Movie Review: All The President's Men
Director: Alan Pakula
Reviewed: 3 June 2013
I love watching movies that feature smart characters. Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) are smart, and so are their editors Harry Rosenfeld (Jack Warden) and Ben Bradlee (Jason Robards), and so are their readers. The stakes are incredibly high: the investigation of the 1972 Watergate Hotel break-in that uncovered malfeasance at the highest levels of the government leading to President Nixon's impeachment. A persistent Woodward and a hungry, observant Bernstein join forces in the search for the truth, a search that entails much shoe leather, phone interviews, persistent questioning, meeting with anonymous sources, as well as asking the right questions. Together, with Bradlee's support, they brought down a President and changed the course of American history. "All The President's Men" is that well-told story, as well as a story about the work of two young journalists with ambition and tenacity. It is a pleasant reminder of how powerful our reporters and journalists can be.
Alan J. Pakula's 1976 film gets so many things right: the grand set of the Washington Post newsroom, a hive of activity and noises like typewriters, answering phones, and paper being pulled out; the steady relentlessness of acquiring sources and recording notes; the juxtaposition of the public political moments such as President Nixon's return from China or his reelection with the digging done by the reporters. There is a quiet, understated chemistry between the two leads, Redford and Bernstein; at one point, tension mounts as Bernstein rewrites a piece that Woodward is submitting, and when Woodward reads it, he cuts Bernstein's explanation off at the knees. "Yours is better," he announces and brings his notes over to him in collaboration. Both men use their friendships and pool of connections in D.C. to get people to talk on the record, to let them see records at the Library of Congress, to determine who is controlling the bugging of the Democratic National Headquarters and much worse. Little is known about their personal lives, but Woodward's apartment is a mess of books and papers.
To tell this story, Pakula zooms his camera in slowly to represent the slog of the writing of the pieces; he is content to show the audience the work of typing up a piece, answering phones, and scribbling down notes. He wisely holds Woodward's face in a close-up for a six-and-a-half minute unbroken take of a phone interview. What I liked is that "All The President's Men" eschews the typical banter of a workplace film; the writing is work and when Ben Bradlee wants more sources, he is represented as prudent, not tyrannical or outlandish. Evocative of the greater conspiracy afoot without being over-the-top, I can see how this film is emblematic of the power of the press to hold truth to power amidst the uneven playing field of American politics. With Bernstein in the news recently showing support of NSA leaker Edward Snowden and Woodward an omnipresent figure in the George W. Bush White House, both men have continued to be a part of the exploration of the power structures that run our country. And, their rise to national prominence came from the Watergate investigation. My one complaint about the film? It may be too self-effacing, as the reporters collaborate and avoid histrionics. And, that may be the film's best quality. It is difficult for any director to make writing compelling. There are far too many films that show actors squinting at computer screens nowadays. However, Pakula makes the act of journalism into courageous acts of will and patriotism. The conflict is never between the two men or them and their higher-ups. The real conflict is always unseen, the immovable shadowy power grab that overreaches and finds itself exposed to the American public and to history by two diligent, resourceful journalists.