All the President’s Men (1976)
“At times it looked like it might cost them their jobs, their reputations, and maybe even their lives.”
All the President’s Men (1976)
Director: Alan J. Pakula
Cast: Dustin Hoffman, Robert Redford, Jack Warden
Synopsis: Reporters Woodward and Bernstein uncover the details of the Watergate scandal that leads to President Nixon’s resignation.
I wonder what the future holds for All the President’s Men. Hailed as a classic upon its release, the film, scripted by William Goldman, abandoned conventional storytelling tropes to focus solely on the dogged persistence of the two young reporters who painstakingly pieced together the parts of an extraordinarily intricate puzzle. The complexity of their task is evident in nearly every scene: the unwillingness of anyone – anyone – to talk to them, the political effort to derail their investigation when their persistence starts paying off, the doubts of their own employers about the veracity of their story. And it’s this adherence to the minutiae of a complicated investigation that might well see All the President’s Men eventually consigned to the ever-expanding list of movies forgotten by later generations. Watergate is a story from a faraway time. The characters involved that were once household names – Mitchell, Haldeman, Ehrlichman, et al – are no longer instantly recognisable. All the President’s Men assumes a knowledge of people and incidents on the part of its audience that is no longer there, and now looks a little too convoluted as a result…
With no back story to sketch in their character’s personal history, it falls on Robert Redford (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Candidate) and Dustin Hoffman (Midnight Cowboy, Marathon Man) as Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein respectively, to imprint some personality into what would otherwise be cookie-cutter types. Redford has a quiet anxiety about him; he often carries himself as if prepared for flight. Hoffman is impulsive and excitable; he chain smokes and speaks quickly. Their early differences – hinted at by the way they peer around columns at one another in the sterile offices of The Washington Post – are quickly forgotten as the story gathers pace, and by the film’s final reel they are peering over one another’s shoulders as they communicate by typewriter in a room they fear is bugged. There’s a realistic naturalism about their relationship which is interesting to watch and unusual, even for a movie from the caustic 70s.
The details of the investigation are difficult to follow. Names are thrown at the screen, and while it would have been a mistake to have actors portraying the key figures behind the Watergate scandal, the fact that we have few faces to match to the names sometimes makes things difficult for the audience. And yet, we’re never bored, even if at times we struggle to share Bernstein and Woodward’s mounting excitement and anxiety. Much of the film is nothing more than a series of filmed telephone conversations. One of them lasts for five minutes or more, an ultra-slow zoom in on Redford as he politely worries and gnaws and digs at a couple of the lesser players in the cover-up, and somehow it’s never anything less than riveting.
The nervous energy and enthusiasm of Redford and Hoffman is counterbalanced by the wary caution of their bosses. Woodward and Bernstein’s spearheading of the investigation is granted firstly through the gruff but fatherly mentoring of Harry Rosenfeld (Jack Warden – 12 Angry Men, Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead), who convinces his gruff but good-humoured boss, Howard Simons (Martin Balsam – Psycho, Breakfast at Tiffany’s) who, in turn, wins the grudging consent of the gruff-but-nothing-else Ben Bradlee (Jason Robards – Once Upon a Time in the West, Philadelphia). Robards deservedly picked up the Best Supporting Actor gong for his performance as the near God-like Bradlee, a man who inspired fear and loyalty in equal measure, and who stands by his two young reporters when it looks as though their investigation is about to be debunked as a major case of bad reporting.
There’s no mistaking the quality of All the President’s Men, or its value not only as entertainment, but as a record of America’s most infamous political scandal. We no longer see journalism of the kind practiced by Woodward and Bernstein, and we’re undoubtedly a lesser-informed generation as a result. It’s just a shame that All the President’s Men is a movie which, through no fault of its own, appears to be losing relevance for a new generation…
(Reviewed 24th June 2015)