ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN (1976)

  • Director: Alan J. Pakula
  • Writers: William Goldman, based on the non-fiction book by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward
  • Starring: Robert Redford, Dustin Hoffman, Jack Warden, Jason Robards, Hal Holbrook, Martin Balsam, and Jane Alexander
  • Accolades: 4 Oscars (Best Supporting Actor – Jason Robards, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Art Direction, Best Sound), 4 additional Oscar nominations (Best Picture, Best Director – Alan J. Pakula, Best Film Editing, Best Supporting Actress – Jane Alexander), 2007 AFI Top 100 list (#77)
  • Where to Watch: Stream with subscription to HBO Max, buy or rent with Amazon Video, YouTube, or AppleTV

The key to really enjoying All the President’s Men, I think, is to stop caring about who is saying which name at which time. Sometimes new names get introduced with no preamble, while others you just sort of have to know to understand what’s happening. I had the big advantages of having seen the movie multiple times before, knowing a lot of the actual history already, and having subtitles on, and I remain convinced it’s not actually follow-able in a specific plot sense. It seems strange for such a seemingly cerebral, dense movie, but I really think its strength is in the experience. There are long scenes done entirely in close-up on either Robert Redford or Dustin Hoffman, as they make more than one phone call to a possible source or meet with a source in a cafe or in a crappy apartment. When Redford makes a phone call, we watch him dial every… number… on… his… rotary… phone. Sometimes he gets interrupted by random talking in the background of the newsroom. It’s not like they were in a real newsroom, all of those “naturalistic” notes in this movie had to be added in.

In case you weren’t raised in my house, All the President’s Men was originally a non-fiction book written by the Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, played here by Hoffman and Redford, respectively, about their investigation into the 1972 break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate complex in Washington, an investigation that over the course of two years eventually led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon. The movie makes an extremely interesting choice to only cover about the first half of the book, leaving it essentially without an ending. It stops around the time of Nixon’s re-election in November 1972, and then tells the rest of the story in loud, aggressive close-up of a teletype  That’s another reason I think it’s hard to watch it from a plot perspective. There’s not really a climax, or a plot structure at all. And yet there are emotional rises and falls, and plenty of scenes with a lot of tension and suspense. Somehow we care about what’s happening, even as the reporters’ desperation edges into silliness, like in the scene where Bernstein tells a source that’s he’s going to count down from ten, “and if you haven’t hung up, the story’s good.”

A lot of actors have been super famous, but few have parleyed that fame into more areas than Robert Redford. He hit it big starting with 1969’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (he played Sundance) with that money bought a huge ranch outside Park City, Utah. He personally got Woodward and Bernstein to give him the rights to their story, while starring in another political movie, The Candidate. Since All the President’s Men, he started the Sundance Film Festival in Park City (named after his character), got involved in a variety of liberal political causes, started directing, won the Best Director Oscar with his first movie, Ordinary People, and started a TV Channel (the Sundance Channel, if you hadn’t figured that out). He has won the Presidential Medal of Freedom, is a “chevalier” in the “Legion d’Honneur,” and the Audubon Medal, “the highest honor of the National Audubon Society.” When the recent Watchmen TV series had to come up with a Democratic version of Ronald Reagan to serve as President-for-life in its particular alternate history, Redford was likely an easy choice.

My Redford has always been craggy and wind-worn, as he cares for, I don’t know, wild horses on his ranch (how did they get in? I don’t know, ask him), but here he is unmistakably a movie star, moreso than most actors you’ll see. In one half of the movie, he and Hoffman are placed in scenes alongside a set of craggy, abrasive, but ultimately good-hearted editors, most prominently Jason Robards as the legendary editor Ben Bradlee. In the other half, basically, they’re put opposite a series of actors from whom they desperately wring confirmations of seemingly arcane pieces of information through a wide variety of techniques. Most of these people are in about one scene, but they’re all great. In one scene, an airplane flies right overhead and they have to yell over it. This might seem like a quirk of shooting that they left in, but reportedly they added the noise in, for… reasons. The only one who gets more than one scene is a former Republican accountant played by Jane Alexander, who can barely bring herself to nod in Hoffman’s direction as he lists random letters to try and see if they’re someone’s initials. 

The scenes people tend to remember from this movie are the ones between Redford and his shadowy source Deep Throat (Hal Holbrook) in the parking garage, with just Holbrook’s eyes lit up, and two of them looking jumpy whenever they hear a car in the distance. One time Redford looks in the other direction for a second and turns back and Deep Throat is gone, like he’s Batman or something. This is the part where I’m obligated to mention that my cousin’s kids went to daycare in the building of that parking garage, and it has now been demolished. Anyway, the movie’s tone is interesting in that many of the characters involved seem to be vaguely in fear for their life, none more than Deep Throat, but nobody actually gets murdered. The closest thing to an action sequence is when Redford gets paranoid for a second and starts running as he exits one of his meetings with Deep Throat. The music swells, until he turns around and sees nothing.

Director Alan J. Pakula is not really a household name today, but he excelled at this sort of grounded, vaguely anxiety ridden filmmaking. All the President’s Men is sometimes seen as the third link in his “Paranoia Trilogy,” along with the prior films Klute and The Parallax View. He had a successful career as a producer, including 1962’s To Kill a Mockingbird, before moving into directing. He spends the movie almost entirely in close-ups, there are maybe three or four really wide shots in the whole movie. The most prominent are two big cranes up from the reporters as they work, one of them in the Reading Room at the Library of Congress and another that pulls up from them driving to get another door slammed in their face that gradually pulls out to a wide shot of the skyline of 1970s Washington.

One thing that’s easy to forget is that this is, in essence, a first draft of history. This movie was being shot while Gerald Ford was still President. It would be like watching a movie about the pandemic in 2021. Most of the people depicted were heavily involved in the creation of the movie, and, after voicing concerns with the current draft by William Goldman (who also, uncoincidentally, wrote Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid), Bernstein himself actually wrote a full draft of the script with his girlfriend. This makes more sense when you realize that his girlfriend was Nora Ephron, a famous screenwriter, though best known for romantic comedies like When Harry Met Sally and Sleepless in Seattle. Though this was not the version that ended up getting used (Goldman later noted that it “sure made Bernstein seem like catnip to the ladies”) several scenes ended up in the final draft. It’s worth pointing out that several of these same characters also appeared in Steven Spielberg’s 2017 film The Post, in which Tom Hanks plays Bradlee and Meryl Streep plays Washington Post owner Katherine Graham, who is mentioned here but never seen. But that portrayal, with more distance, seems far more carved in marble than than anyone in this movie. Whether it’s through adding in airplane noises or just listening to the people involved, All the President’s Men does a much better job of making its characters seem real than it does in helping us actually follow its plot.

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