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Cones of light from a few darting flashlights break the ebony of a darkened Watergate Hotel suite. Five men scramble into the shadows and begin what appears to be a search. Meanwhile, a guard on patrol notices bands of masking tape across a bolt lock, preventing an exit door from closing securely. Nice work. Police are called. They arrive, bust into the room and arrest the burglars, who are hiding in the offices of the Democratic National Committee headquarters. Next day, the Washington Post assigns wet-behind-the ears reporter Bob Woodward (Redford) to cover what is considered to be a minor incident. In court, four of the men are identified as Cuban-American and the fifth as ex-CIA. Hmm. Our hero gets curious. The no-gooders had bugging equipment and are well defended by a posh “country-club” attorney. Red flags are popping up all over the place (quite literally as you’ll soon read). With some digging, Woodward learns they are connected to two rather important persons: E. Howard Hunt–another ex-CIA man–and Charles Colsen, none other than special counsel for thee President of the United States, Richard M. Nixon.
As the scandal thickens, Woodward gets a partner named Carl Bernstein (Hoffman) to help with the investigation. The two reporters find more disturbing information, but it’s not enough to convince their boss, Ben Bradlee (Robards) to put it on the front page, so Woodward calls upon a mysterious informant named “Deep Throat.” Deep Throat is a senior government official who remains in the shadows, communicating in riddles and metaphors, arranging meetings by having Woodward prop actual red flags in flowerpots as signals. This is how they did it before text messaging. In a dark parking garage, Deep Throat tells Woodward to “follow the money.”
Directed by the late Alan J. Pakula, All the President’s Men is a tense, intelligent political thriller that is highly entertaining while making a powerful point about abuse of power. Considered a landmark in the genre, it remains a very affecting piece of filmmaking, highlighted by two honest and engrossing performances. While liberties are expected in any dramatic interpretation, the significance and look back at one of the most corruptive political stories in American history is worth it, even if it inspires a curiosity to learn more.
Scene Setup: Things are getting spicy. The two intrepid reports have been finding a lot of dots but having trouble connecting them. In a break, Bernstein snags an uneasy heavy-coffee-infused home interview with a bookkeeper for the Democratic National Committee, who reluctantly, often inadvertently, spills a few more important beans, naming top conspirators by initials, such as “P”, “L”, and “M”. Pumped by the information, Bernstein rushes over to Woodward to share the news.
Why it matters: The two men have vastly different styles. Bernstein is the veteran who has, rather oddly, taken Woodward under his wing, checking and changing Woodward’s work without Woodward’s approval. They have some minor confrontations, but it is clear the two men realize they are of a like mind: Get the truth. In this scene, while we gleefully mix a few metaphors, we see the two men gel for the first time, working like a well-oiled machine, communicating with rapid-fire, never pausing but always building, connecting. Bernstein is pacing, juiced up on six hours of coffee, his pockets stuffed with notes. He’s excited. He feels progress and can barely contain his energy. He knows he’s got something big, so big it’s made him jumpy with paranoia and intrigue. Woodward is the anchor for the audience, asking the right questions, keeping the topic on track, explaining what is beginning said.
More: There is a wonderful transition in this scene that tells a lot about the relationship and context of the film as a whole. It’s established early in the movie that Woodward is the novice, having worked at the Post for only 9 months. He’s aggressive, but he’s inexperienced. Bernstein, while not yet the go-to reporter in the company, has a tack record; one we suspect is a little fast and loose, but effective. At one point, there is a closed-door meeting with higher-ups arguing about taking the men off the story and handing it over to some proven journalists. Bradlee won’t hear of it, and even when the paper itself is being publicly condemned for possible libel against named men in the reporter’s work, he stands behind the boys. Touching. As this scene begins, Bernstein is working the room, moving quickly, flailing his arms, spewing like a geyser everything he can remember. Woodward is trying to keep up, jabbing at the typewriter, pleading for answers. And then it shifts, perfectly. Exhausted, Bernstein collapses into the sofa and Woodward rises. He takes the wheel and drives it ahead, and we suddenly recognize the bond these men have built and how that bond is going bring down the most powerful man in the free world. Let’s watch:
Political movies can be very hit or miss, with most being a success if they are grounded in satire or parody. Think Bulworth, Dave, Primary Colors, The Mouse that Roared, or the underrated Bob Roberts with Tim Robbins. These films skewer politics and make it okay for us to laugh, even though we recognize the underlying reality, frightening as it may be. All the President’s Men doesn’t have any laughs.
Throughout the film, there is a tremendous sense of realism. The Washington Post office is a bustling room of activity that is populated by what genuinely appears like real reporters and staff carrying on their duties. Too often in movies, background characters feel just like that, as if they are walking in front of the cameras because that is what the director says. Here, it appears as if we are visitors to a real place. People interact and seem as if they are old friends. Subtle exchanges add such depth that it has a documentary or even hidden camera feel. At times, it is like we are invited. We are sitting at the same tables, looking over shoulders, standing in circles, and even eavesdropping on conversations in the short distance.
Meanwhile, the TV’s are always playing. Sometimes with its back to us as people gather in front. Other times right in front of the camera, nearly swallowing up the entire frame. They play the news, clips of Nixon and his men, denying and non-denying on every screen, driving public opinion against Woodward and Bernstein. And we feel it. It is a very clever way to use the media as a secondary character, and remind us of what was happening beyond the walls of the press room.
As there is nearly no score or soundtrack, save for a few suspenseful strings towards the end, it is the televisions and almost non-stop clacking of typewriter keys that punctuate the mood. The lack of music is highly effective and like The China Syndrome a few years later, works best because there is no score. We love a good soundtrack of course, even find that most movies need one. They serve as an emotional guide and cue for audiences and can greatly add to the movie-going experience. All through this film, the tension that is typically built up by a good score is made more so by the action and performances. Redford and Hoffman are at the top of their games here, convincing as their real life counterparts, and more importantly simply magnetic as Hollywood leading men. Wisely, as is often a mistake in movies, they didn’t try to make them look like the real journalists. Caking famous faces, such a Anthony Hopkins, Nicole Kidman, or even Steve Carrell in ungodly sums of makeup to look like another person, especially one we are familiar with, only distracts. Yes, it works occasionally. Jim Carrey as Andy Kauffman was pretty convincing, but it wasn’t like we stopped knowing it was Carrey, no matter how great that performance was. Our point here is that with the producers allowing audiences to use their imaginations and let these two gifted actors do their job, we forget it’s Redford and Hoffman and come to accept, believe, and trust them as Woodward and Bernstein. That’s pretty special stuff.
Movies have changed. Made today, this would be a much different film. Probably focusing more on the Deep Throat character, it would be hyper-dramatic and play up the alleged bugging of the two reporters and the “danger” they are told they are facing. That may sound like a criticism, but is not intended to be. Sensibilities shift. That happens. Movies are entertainment first, educators second. As it is, this movie takes its liberties and presents a sold narrative that, at the cost of being a film, is a little compressed and slightly misleading, but certainly thrilling. Based on the book of the same name, written by the two journalists, it ends abruptly just as Nixon takes office for the second term. In the background, we see our heroes madly typing away, and we get the impression that they are, at that moment, pulling the foundation out from under the smiling man on TV. But as we see in the final shots, while the image shifts to an old teletype spitting out news headlines, Nixon resignation comes more than a year later. In fact, the film omits a very large part of that story, including the White House barring Washington Post reporter Dorothy McCardle from the press pool, and long stretches of desperation for the newspaper as the government filed numerous reprisals and condemnations.
As is it, the film’s slightly less than satisfying ending doesn’t take away from the experience. If anything, it ignites curiosity. The corruption that this real life story exposed shocked the nation and forever left a shadow of fear and mistrust in the government. While “Watergate” and more especially “-gate” have become signature vocabulary in describing any scandal in American politics, it is easy to forgot just how dark and wide-spread this cover-up truly was. Woodward and Bernstein broke one of the most memorable stories in news history and eventually helped dethrone a sitting American president. And it starts with two men and a typewriter making a plan to get a witness to finally tell her story.
Director: Alan J. Pakula
Writers: Carl Bernstein (book), Bob Woodward (book)
Stars: Dustin Hoffman, Robert Redford, Jack Warden