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Garage freak? Jesus. What kind of a crazy fucking story is this?

All the President’s Men
(1976)

It’s fairly routine to find that films lavished with awards ceremony attention really aren’t all that. So many factors go into lining them up, including studio politics, publicity and fashion, that the true gems are often left out in the cold. On some occasions all the attention is thoroughly deserved, however. All the President’s Men lost out to Rocky for Best Picture Oscar; an uplifting crowd-pleaser beat an unrepentantly low key, densely plotted and talky political thriller. But Alan J. Pakula’s film had already won the major victory; it turned a literate, uncompromising account of a resolutely unsexy and over-exposed news story into a huge hit. And even more, it commanded the respect of its potentially fiercest (and if roused most venomous) critics; journalists themselves. All the President’s Men is a masterpiece and with every passing year it looks more and more like a paean to a bygone age, one where the freedom of the press was assumed rather than an endangered species.


It’s one thing to convince the average Joe that a movie realistically portrays a profession, quite another to gain the approval of the purveyors of said profession themselves. Of course, there was a natural spur driving the producers to ensure verisimilitude; they knew that a “sexed up” Hollywood version of the Washington Post newsroom would invite brickbats from those who influence the cinemagoers. But there was also a very real and earnest desire to do a monumentally important story justice. Most materially this dedication to accuracy manifests in the painstaking replication of the newsroom itself on a Hollywood soundstage. But that’s really more of a surface detail.


What Pakula, and Robert Redford, and William Goldman (at the tail end of his peak decade, and winning a second Oscar for his exactitude) achieve is a sense of what it is to report the news, to chase a story and put together the pieces. The banality of door-to-door enquiries, unproductive footwork and unforthcoming interview subjects. And the rush that comes from a sudden lead or insight. The impression of spontaneity was actively encouraged by the director (even though Goldman’s screenplay was meticulously researched), and Redford and Dustin Hoffman (as Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein respectively) learnt each other’s lines so they could overlap each other and finish each other’s sentences; all the better to imbue a story that is 90% people sitting around and talking to each other with immediacy and urgency. Not that you’d think about one of cinema’s great thrillers that way.


Redford’s attachment to the project from inception meant that he even volunteered himself for the DVD commentary. It isn’t one of the best I’ve heard; you won’t take away much more than is contained within the several (very good) documentaries on the release.  Still, a degree of repetition is forgivable, as his involvement with the story is fascinating. His interest in the Watergate was first piqued when he was doing a press tour for The Candidate. He overheard a gaggle of journalists discussing it (this would have been ’72) and quizzed them. It became clear there was a lot more to it than met the eye, but none of them were willing to go near the story. Then, as the weeks and months passed he began to notice the one regular source of reportage on the case came from Woodward and Bernstein, two obscure no-name journalists with the Post. He attempted to contact them on a number of occasions, but a meeting only took place after the story had begun snowballing. When he did gain an audience, it was his suggestion that their book be about their involvement with the case rather than a clinical account of the facts (one of their ideas was to present the story from the point of view of the burglars).


Redford appears to deserve the credit then, for seeing the intrinsic value in the journalists as an entry point into the story as a whole. As he put it, these two guys were chalk and cheese; one was a Wasp, one was a Jew; one was a Republican, one was a radical; one was didactic and thorough and all bout the sources, one made creative leaps. They didn’t even like each other very much. And yet they both had the passion to report the case, and their conflicting sensibilities worked in their favour; they were dogged, determined, and competitive and kept each other on the other’s toes.


Redford was also clear about the scope of the picture. It would stop where the events everyone knew started (although Goldman has it that this was his idea; he threw out the second half of “Woodstein’s” book). Which sounds insane at first glance, like cutting the explosive finale out of an action movie. But again, it worked. By the time the film was entering production, the attitude from Warner Bros was “Gee, don’t you think we all know enough about Watergate?” And yet that wasn’t really the part of it they would be focussing on. Pakula died in 1998, so his insights aren’t available on the DVD release, but all concerned cite his innate understanding of and interest in journalism. Those at the Post warmed to his attitude. And Redford knew he had found a great partner in the project, someone who came in and saw that the screenplay needed to be rethought and restructured in order to benefit the drama.


None of which went down very well with Goldman, who is conspicuously absent from the documentaries. He was so hassled by Pakula for rewrites that he attested he wouldn’t go near the story if he could do it all over again. Earlier in the process he was victim of a less than glorious episode where Redford, Woodward, Bernstein, and the Bernstein’s girlfriend Nora Ephron presented a script written by the latter two; Goldman exited without looking at it (the scene where Bernstein waits outside Ned Beatty’s office is the only surviving remnant from the their script). Although it seems that Redford didn’t like their script either. Whatever (allegedly copious) additions and changes the producer/star and director made to Goldman’s work, he still retained sole credit (Richard Stayton, who reviewed a number of drafts of the script including the production draft, concluded that Pakula’s and Redford’s claims were baloney). Of course, the Redford version presents him in glorious golden boy light, and there are always less salubrious tales of his dealings to be found (how he wrested control of Quiz Show away from Steven Soderbergh, for example).


Deep Throat: You tell me what you know and I’ll confirm.

What no one disputes is the inestimable contribution made by cinematographer Gordon Willis. He earlier collaborated with Pakula on paranoia thrillers Klute and The Parallax View; this rounded out an unofficial trilogy. Willis’ penchant for natural light served to underline the realistic tone of ATPM. He was the much-vaunted “Prince of Darkness” and he defined conspiracy thrillers going forward by the encounters between Woodward and Hal Holbrook’s Deep Throat in a vast, empty, inky-black underground car park. The dark itself becomes a character. Most obviously, this inspired The X-Files’ own Deep Throat, but also JFK’s X. In 2005 the insider was eventually revealed as Mark Felt, the then Deputy Director of the FBI (his motivations are suggested to have been conflicting; part of his behaviour resulting from dismay at being passed over for promotion, but also down to a very real concern that, as a Hooverite, Nixon intended to put an end to the independence of the Bureau and have it become a stooge agency (like the CIA).


Willis’ stark harsh lighting of the newsroom provides a powerful contrast to the murk of hushed whispers with a confidante, but he uses similar techniques for different effect. In The Parallax View, the solitary figure in the newspaper offices suggests surveillance by persons unknown. In ATPM, it indicates someone willing to work round the clock to break a story when all others have retired. Justly noted is the use of deep focus in these scenes. Time and again, we see Woodward typing away in close-up, with still in-focus colleagues far behind him. Willis and Pakula also emphasis the sheer scale of the task facing the duo; they are seen dwarfed by the immensity of their research both in libraries and Washington itself.


Pakula and Willis know just how to ignite excitement, either through a character’s responses or the movement of the camera. Bernstein will run through the newsroom, or the camera will track in on or after a character, announcing a scoop or a key piece of the puzzle in place. David Shire’s minimal yet stirring score appears only sporadically, but when it does it suggests a rising tide, facts dragged to the surface from the doomy depths. The sound in general follows course, with a less-is-more approach; a noise in a car park inspires dread, or a clashing close-up of a typed letter as the key hits emphasises the power of the word.

Harry Rosenfeld: Howard, they’re hungry. Do you remember when you were hungry?

This feeling of discovery fuels the picture and makes it endlessly rewatchable. Pakula pulls off no small feat by conveying the monotony of their graft without making it tiresome to watch; knowing it will lead somewhere sustains the viewer.


But there’s also the feeling of danger when they get close. The dawning paranoia when they discover Miss Milland (Valerie Curtin) and her desperate plea (“Will you please leave before they see you”). And the rising tension as Bernstein tries to hold on as long as he can during his conversation with Judy Hoback (Jane Alexander), extracting every scrap of information he is able and drinking coffee by the gallon. Then there are the journalistic games the duo play, which would be childish if the stakes weren’t so high. They use initials so that the interviewee can’t be accused of directly revealing information, or trap someone into a confirmation by pretending they already know. We also see the moment of baffled defeat, the “non-denial denial” when they go with a story only have the rug pulled from under it (“Are we being set up?”). And then, the realisation that it was a direct consequence of the kind of arcane methods of confirmation they have been using (counting to ten during the phone scene).


Redford points to the aftermath of Woodward’s second encounter with Deep Throat as being the “action scene” of the movie, half joking; this is the occasion where he thinks he’s being followed and breaks into a run. It has that kind of terror experienced as a kid, when every noise confirmed that the boogeyman was behind you. If the “action scene” isn’t quite what you’d expect, neither is the high point of paranoia. On the third occasion of their meeting, Deep Throat informs a frayed Woodward, who is “tired of these chicken shit games”, the full extent of the conspiracy. “Your lives are in danger” he informs the journalist. So the subsequent scenes, as Woodward visits Bernstein and puts music on loudly in case the house is being bugged, and then their conversation with the Executive Editor Ben Bradlee (Jason Robards), would usually act as a prelude to further dramatics to come. Instead, it’s pretty much the end of the picture. Bradley states he is fully behind him; what follows is essentially epilogue.


Redford and Hoffman are great throughout; they are stars in so much as they sweeten the pill of (potentially) difficult material, but they don’t (on screen at least) make the demands one would expect from the pampered set. Redford had not initially intended to star in the picture, but acquiesced when he realised it would calm a lot of studio nerves.


Both stars were seven years older than the figures they portrayed, far enough away that if it wasn’t for their youthful looks they might have been an awkward fit for such inexperienced/problem cases. Rather than focussing on expected areas of the classic star vehicle, such as character arcs and love interest, Woodward and Bernstein remain relative blank slates. Their major impulses are sketched out in a few deft scenes. Bernstein rewrite of Woodward’s copy provides great character definition on both sides. We see how Bernstein is willing to behave unscrupulously if it will get results. And we see that Woodward can put his ego in check to recognise Bernstein’s talent  (“You’re right. Yours is better”) but he won’t let him get away with his behaviour (“I don’t mind what you did I mind the way you did it”). 


At first Bernstein comes is clearly the get-ahead guy willing to cut corners while Woodward is the one with unassailable principles. But as the film progresses we see that Woodward is just as ambitious as his colleague and capable of being just as ruthless. In particular, there is the moment he goes “for the jugular” when talking to colleague Sally Aiken (Penny Fuller) and the passive manipulation of Kay Eddy (Lindsay Crouse) to get her to do what he wants. There’s the occasional beat that feels a little off; you can see why they wanted it there, but Bernstein’s look of surprise when he announces to Hugh Sloan (Stephen Collins) that he is also a Republican doesn’t really fly. There’s no way he wouldn’t have realised this in the first few weeks of working with the guy (if not, much sooner). And, after they have been to see Sloan again, there’s a scene that Redford cites as one he and Hoffman improvised (they are talking in the car); it’s curious to hear that affirmation, because it feels a little off, not as tight and coherent as their other conversations. In general though, this is the least affected a major movie star picture gets.


Ben Bradlee: Goddam it when is somebody going to go on record on this story.

As for the supporting cast, the leader of the pack is the much-deserved Oscar winner Jason Robards. Robards was coming out of a period of illness where he found it difficult to get work, and Redford (who been friends with the older actor since he was just starting out) had him in the frame from the first. Robard’s Bradlee wears the years of insight and experience on his face, but also ensures he is by turns intimidating and funny. He knows when to push his troops (“Get some harder information next time” he instructs, after denying them a front page) and when to show solidarity (“Fuck it, lets stand by the boys” is his pronouncement following the non-denial denials). He listens to advice (“It’s a dangerous story for this paper,” one of his colleagues tells him at the outset). And his stunned reaction to being told about Deep Throat is hilarious (“Garage freak? Jesus. What kind of a crazy fucking story is this?”) It’s interesting that we never see the proprietor Katherine Graham but, since she gave Bradlee a free hand (albeit her support was vital), it is probably correct to maintain focus on the newsroom.


Jack Warden is in familiar lovable mode as the boys’ supporter. Hal Holbrook was the only choice for Deep Throat. Besides Robards’ Oscar win, Jane Alexander was also deservedly nominated (Best Supporting Actress). Other established faces including Beatty and Martin Balsam, but it’s interesting to note the up-and-coming performers in small roles. F Murray Abraham plays one of cops who arrest the burglars in the first scene. Future Star Trek: The Motion Picture star and lead in Indiana Jones rip-off Tales of the Golden Monkey Stephen Collins is Sloan, one of Woodstein’s sources. Meredith Baxter, who would play the mum in Family Ties a decade later, is Sloan’s wife. A very young pre-Mamet Lindsay Crouse makes her feature debut.


For a picture generally (and rightly) greeted so deferentially, it’s easy to forget that it’s often quite funny too. Probably because the humour arises naturally from the situations. Bradlee’s responses are noteworthy, as is the repeated line from one of their sources; “I have a wife and a family and a dog and a cat”. Indeed, the interview subjects provide regular amusement. The call to Ken Dahlberg elicits the response “I’ve just been through a terrible ordeal. My neighbour’s wife has been kidnapped” to which Woodward looks slightly perplexed (this incident actually happened). And the back-and-forth between Woodward and Bernstein is full of tics and quirks, both antagonistic and humourous (“Is there any space you don’t smoke?” asks Woodward as they enter a lift).


All the President’s Men was nominated for eight Oscars and won four.  I suspect few would contest it is by far the superior film to Rocky but fell-good movies often tend to have their way (and I wouldn’t wish to denigrate the Stallone film; it’s a good solid picture). Aside from Robards and Goldman, it took Art Direction and Sound. It lost to Rocky in the Editing and Director categories and to Network in Supporting Actress. Outrageously, the defining work of Gordon Willis didn’t even garner a nomination.


That All the President’s Men became such a big hit proves Goldman’s much quoted adage that “Nobody knows anything...... Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what's going to work. Every time out it's a guess and, if you're lucky, an educated one”. Even with the star power of its leads, there would be little reason to expect the film to have done more than middling business at best. As Redford was advised, people were weary of Watergate. And they were being asked to see a film with no grand climax, shorn of mighty dramatics, filled with talk talk talk, densely-plotted, and making no concessions to demands on its audience’s attention.  Its success is testament to the view that audiences want see good stories, rather than be exclusively spoon-fed sugary confections. If there’s a criticism of the final article, it might be that, during the later stages. there is insufficient impression of the pace of the gathering story in the world outside the newsroom (this is especially the case when Woodward meets with Robert Walden’s Don Segretti). But that’s small potatoes in terms of its achievement as a whole.


Interviewed in 2006, Jonathan Adler of Newsweek suggested there would be little chance of the Watergate story being broken today. Citing the 2005 case of Judith Miller, he said the journalists would be subpoenaed before a grand jury and would then be imprisoned for refusing to reveal their sources. They would be taken off the story and the dirty truth would not be exposed. It’s a chastening thought, even more so with the discussion (in the UK at least) over reporting of the Edward Snowden affair and the State’s intimidation and endangerment of Press freedom. You can quite see why All the President’s Men is shown to journalists at conferences to inspire them (and why enrolment in journalism courses increased following the film’s release); the film remains an inspiration, a rallying cry to the idea that truth will out, and it is relevant now more than ever.


*****


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