Saturday, August 17, 2013

All the President's Men

All the President’s Men
Director: Alan J. Pakula
Starring: Dustin Hoffman, Robert Redford, Jason Robards

I will forever think of my mother whenever I watch anything with Robert Redford.  I know I have a fairly wide fangirl streak running through me that, although it may go through periods of dormancy, can erupt at any moment in full blown fervor (as my recent mania obsession fascination with Sherlock attests).  After a bit of analysis, I believe I inherited this from my mother.  I still remember watching her eyes go all glassy the first time she told me, passionately, about her lifelong crush on Bob Redford.  And this, All the President’s Men, is one of her favorite films.  For Redford, yes, but besides Redford, it’s also a damn fine film.

Opening with the break in at the Watergate Hotel, Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward (Redford) attends the arraignment of the five burglars and starts to smell a story.  Post editor Ben Bradlee (Robards) also puts fellow reporter Carl Bernstein (Hoffman) on the case, and together, Woodward and Bernstein start chasing down leads.  Problem is, no one seems to want to talk to them, especially when it becomes clear that somehow, the Committee to Re-Elect the President, aka CREEP, seems to be involved.  But Woodward has a source inside the White House, the infamous Deep Throat, and that, paired with singular stubbornness, keeps the two reporters following the money all the way to the very top.

All the President’s Men plays out as a thriller, which is rather unusual considering that everyone knows how the story ends.  How, then, does it manage to make the plot compelling?  How does it manage to be so damn engaging that I actually sat up to the edge of my seat in the last twenty minutes and shushed my husband next to me, despite the fact that 1) I know Nixon resigned, and 2) I had SEEN the movie before?  My theory is that the film plays on the fact that you know how it must end, and instead, strings you, the viewer, along as it slowly, ever so slowly, builds towards the inevitable conclusion.

It is the very certainty of the conclusion that makes the viewer righteously frustrated and, therefore, invested.  We know what’s going to happen; we want to watch HOW it happens.  And All the President’s Men is so good at drawing out the suspense in the logistics of the investigation.  Right from the first time Woodstein (as Bradlee calls them) try to publish a story that dares to make larger connections beyond the simple Watergate break in, their editor Bradlee immediately delivers a metaphorical knockout punch to the two for having soft sources.  Realistically, this is not to punish the characters but instead to instruct the audience.  This simple exchange teaches us, the viewer, that Woodstein need to have strong sources and solid facts for the story to run, not simply the sketch of a cover up.  A sketch won’t do, it must be concrete.  And from this point on, all the tension in All the President’s Men is about scrapping for tiny bits of concrete evidence in a sea of reticent witnesses.

Every time Woodstein visits a possible source, we hold our breath.  Will this be the person that finally speaks?  Every time they get a door slammed in their face, or a person who says they can’t say anything, or someone who clams up at the mention of The Washington Post, it’s frustrating.  And it’s here that All the President’s Men manages to build the tension and become a legitimate thriller.  We KNOW this story will break, it HAS to break, so for crying out loud, WHEN WILL IT BREAK? 

I love how quiet this film is.  There’s precious little soundtrack music ever, as the film in general restricts itself simply to in-story dialogue and sounds, and that works here.  It puts the focus on the dialogue exchanges, which is precisely where it should be in such a fact-heavy story.  Yes, it’s a talking heads movie, but I tend to really like a good talking heads flick.  The long takes also put our focus squarely on the conversations; take, for example, a phone call scene where Woodward first starts to realize that there is a link between the Watergate burglary and CREEP.  The exchange, which involves at least three separate phone conversation, never cuts once.  We simply watch, in a fairly tight close up, as Robert Redford talks on the phone.  And yet, that’s all we really need.  No music, no swelling score, no percussive beats, no fancy cuts, just a few phone conversations of enormous import, plain and simple.  Granted, I don’t think this technique always works, but it works here.  Less is more.

The production design of the film is interesting.  Made in the seventies and set in the seventies, naturally it’s all about that particular era.  And yet, the production design is markedly restrained.  Woodstein visit many people and that involves several sets of people’s homes, yet there is little that feels overtly, loudly seventies.  Instead, there’s a lot of classic, almost standard furniture and wardrobe that, while it doesn’t make the film feel timeless, again serves to keep the focus not on the sets but on the dialogue exchanges.

I did notice one thing about the production design, however: the frequent use of three colors.  Ironic, really, that a film about the toppling of the American president should focus in on red, white, and blue.  Nearly all the interiors – and exteriors, for that matter, given that a good deal of the film was shot in Washington DC – are white.  White wallpapers, doors, ceilings, etc.  The brightness of the background makes the pops of color very noticeable, so when we get the very bright red of the chairs and desks in the Washington Post workroom, it’s noticeable.  When we get the bright blues, it stands out.  Nearly every set is awash in white with pops of either bright red, bright blue, or navy.  This can’t be a coincidence, instead underlining the ironic nature of the statement.  Woodstein and their supporter, Bradlee, never once feel like traitors or as if they are spreading an anti-American message, but the red white and blue undercurrent serves as a reminder that yes, they are in fact in the middle of shaking down the very core of the American government.

But perhaps, ultimately the most astounding thing about All the President’s Men, is that it was released a mere two years after Nixon’s resignation.  The entertainment sector is certainly always quick to jump over a juicy story, but this story is something else altogether.  It’s provocative and pulls at threads many would rather weren’t touched at all.  And what’s more, the film is good.  It doesn’t feel as if it was rushed to press in the slightest.  It’s taut, thrilling, and genuinely engaging.  My mom has good taste.

Arbitrary Rating: 9/10 


  1. I'm always surprised at how effective this one is. I'm just barely old enough to remember Watergate, sort of. All I really remember is that the shows I liked watching were pre-empted by old guys talking for hours on end.

    But when it comes to historical drama like this, it's hard to make them interesting when the audience knows what's going to happen. And yet it really does all work. There's tension here when there sort of shouldn't be.

    By the way, my mom liked Redford, but her real cinematic crush was Paul Newman.

    1. It's amazingly taut and, as you mention, surprisingly effective. I mean, I SHUSHED my husband. STOP TALKING I HAVE TO WATCH THESE EVENTS IN A MOVIE WHOSE ENDING I ALREADY KNOW. That's something, right there.

      It's easy to understand Newman as well. Both of them, really. Newman's blue eyes and grin, Redford's classic boyish looks. I get it, I do.

  2. I liked this movie quite a bit, too. I agree on the build of tension. It's funny to see Steve mention his memories are of shows being pre-empted because even though I'm a few years older than him that's exactly what I remember of it, too. I couldn't understand why my much older sister was interested in watching whatever the heck that was.

    For a different take on the whole story you may want to check out the comedy Dick. It shows us that is was two teenage girls hired to walk Nixon's dog who REALLY broke the Watergate scandal and who fed the story to Woodward and Bernstein. The girls are played by Kirsten Dunst and Michelle Williams. A word of warning: a guy I used to work with felt Dick was a travesty because Woodward and Bernstein were personal heroes of his. This movie makes as much fun of them as it does of Nixon.

    1. Ha ha, I remember seeing ads for "Dick!" (That's a funny sentence taken out of context.) I have no problems with entertainment sending up most any historical character. And I like Michelle Williams. Yeah, I should give that a go.

    2. Speaking of using the title in a sentence, when filming wrapped they presented the two actresses with T-shirts that said something like "I did Dick all summer and I got paid for it."