All the President’s Men [50 New-Old Movies for the 51st Year #41]

Mid-last year, I turned 50 years old!  And to add to all the real life goals and challenges that that brings, I’ve created at least one as it relates to movies and this blog–watch a film I’ve never seen before which came out in each year of my life (thus the “Old-New” terminology), and then write a bit about it.  This is Post #41.  Spoilers ahead.  

All the President’s Men

Directed by Alan J. Pakula

Release Date:  April 4, 1976
My age then:  5 years old

What it is about:  During the presidency of Richard Nixon, several people are caught breaking into the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee. Following this, journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post begin to investigate the facts behind the crime, discovering as they do a vast conspiracy that goes to the highest levels of government. Their investigation suffers multiple setbacks but eventually leads to the disgrace of President Nixon and his eventual resignation.

Starring Robert Redford as Woodward and Dustin Hoffman as Bernstein. Co-starring Jack Warden, Martin Balsam and Jason Robards as various levels of editors above the reporters, and Hal Holbrook as Woodward’s mysterious informant, nicknamed “Deep Throat”. There are lots of other familiar faces in the cast, including Stephen Collins, Ned Beatty, and Jane Alexander as a key witness.

My impressions of this movie before I watched it:  I knew the general gist of what it was about (as mentioned above) but none of the particulars. I had read a Mad Magazine spoof of it years ago, in which I think it was revealed that Deep Throat was actually Gerald Ford (who succeeded Nixon as president).

Reality: So, unlike the last film in this series, All the President’s Men is not silly, and unlike the one before that, it’s not boring. Indeed, it’s a tense, grounded, engaging political-journalistic-biographical-thriller…um, well, drama, really. Basically, it’s a drama, written by William Goldman but based on the book that the central characters themselves wrote, about two real-life journalists who began to “follow the money” behind an odd break-in at the Democratic political headquarters. In doing so, they discover a story with far greater implications then they could have guessed. We know (as audiences at the time did) that the story helped to bring down Nixon’s presidency and altered the political landscape of the nation.

And yet, with all these major implications, there is none of that high-stakes melodrama that you might expect in a film like this. There is tension and people are even scared for their lives at points, but there’s no forced action scenes or contrived murder attempts–nobody tries to push anybody in front of a train.

Instead, what there are is a lot of people knocking on doors, a lot of people making phone calls, and a lot of people asking questions that other people don’t want to answer. The character drama comes from Woodward and Bernstein attempting to satisfy their editors that their story is solid enough to withstand scrutiny, and trying to find ways to convince reluctant witnesses to go on the record with them and confirm facts that need confirming. This is a movie about journalism, and that’s enough to keep our attention.

I have never been the biggest fan of Robert Redford as an actor and have felt often that he is not bringing much to the screen. Here, though there isn’t a lot of characterization provided by the script, Redford brings the (relatively) inexperienced Bob Woodward to life with naturalism and ease. And while Dustin Hoffman doesn’t have enough to do make his performance as interesting as he was in Kramer vs. Kramer or Tootsie, he similarly is perfectly authentic as Carl Bernstein. Basically, we are watching two real people here, with no contrived character arcs. They are interesting because they are doing something interesting.

And they are surrounded by solid, workmanlike actors who are doing their job and doing it well. Really, the movie is a who’s who of recognizable 1970’s actors (including two who later appeared in V–Neva Patterson and Richard Herd, making this the second consecutive movie in this series to have someone from the alien invasion miniseries). Most prominent amongst these are the ones listed above, especially Jason Robards as the Post’s senior editor Ben Bradlee–he’s great and was nominated for an Oscar for his role.

The ending of All the President’s Men is one of the best things I’ve ever seen. After talking to their editor late at night about the depth of the conspiracy, Woodward and Bernstein are told by their editor to go home and rest…for 15 minutes, and then get back to work. We then see a wide shot of the newspaper room, basically empty except for the two men, typing. Then it dissolves into the same angle, but in the day, when it’s crowded and people are watching Nixon’s inauguration on TV. The camera pushes in until it basically becomes a three-shot–Woodward, Bernstein, and Nixon on TV. We briefly cut to just the two reporters, still typing, and then a montage of teletype headlines from the following year, showing the fallout of the investigation and ending with a brief freeze-frame on the new of the presidential resignation. It’s excellent visual and thematic storytelling.

So…when you get down to it, what did I think? Such a good movie. Half the time I didn’t recognize the names of the various political bigwigs that they were discussing–but that didn’t matter. The two leads doing their investigating is completely engrossing.

See here for the Master List.

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