Wednesday, January 13, 2016

All the President's Men

It is often wondered (sometimes on this very blog) why it is necessary to create a fictional movie based on real life events that would be served just fine by a straight documentary.  This would be especially true of the Watergate scandal, a D.C. hotel break-in that in 1972 no one would realize would eventually bring down the President of the U.S.A.  Two relatively inexperienced reporters for the Washington Post named Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein began to investigate and gradually discovered a trail of corruption that would pull out the rug from the Nixon Administration.

Post editor Ben Bradlee (Jason Robards) and colleagues were naturally very cautious with each article they published.  Lest they be perceived as having a bias.  I'm not old enough to remember the events depicted in 1976's ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN, so maybe readers who recall the atmosphere of the time can tell me if cries against the "liberal media" were as despairing as they've been in more recent years.  Bradlee, a hotshot reporter who'd been in his share of hot water back in the day, trusted his boys, whom he eventually dubbed "Woodstein".   While there was some requisite scolding over the inevitable backlash from some articles, declarations of misquotes and such, in the end the crusty old cuss would quietly instruct them to "print that baby".  Well, along with an acknowledgment that this historic reporting would possibly lead to the end of the free press, etc.   No pressure.

And for Woodward and Bernstein, two very different men who nonetheless shared a tireless singlemindedness, it was do or die.  Be right or find another career. Associate Post editor Harry M. Rosenfeld (Jack Warden) calls them "hungry".  "Remember when you were hungry?" he asks his colleague Howard Simmons (Martin Balsam).   It all sounds like good fodder for a movie, and ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN takes the true life drama of Watergate and its fallout and, while this obviously the forms central plot, the film wisely focuses on the two reporters.  Therefore, maybe a regular documentary would not have been as effective?

The reporters play detective.  Piece by piece, interview by interview.  Woodstein also are kind of like salesmen, trying to get their feet into your living room to get you to listen to their pitch.  Then get you to reveal things.  Couple of persuasive young men, they.  You might even call them benignly conniving.  Note their strategies and follow-up visits with Judy Hoback Miller (Jane Alexander, Oscar nominated), the bookkeeper for the Committee to Re-elect the President.  But you could argue that she was just looking for the right person to which to confess.

Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman are perfect in the central roles.  They sell their respective portrayals of Woodward and Bernstein so thoroughly that for stretches you may forget their Hollywood lengendry.  Redford shepherded the project and didn't initially intend to star, but what a solid choice.  The actors spent time with their real life counterparts and absorbed their personas: Woodward's Midwest naivete and Bernstein's slick borderline hucksterism.  They do clash early on; in one interesting scene Woodward watches as Bernstein secretively edits an article the former had just turned in.  After admitting his partner's version is better written and clearer, Woodward states "I don't mind that you did it.  I mind the way you did it."

Redford and Hoffman memorized each others lines so that when they talk over each other it really does sound like two aggressive and increasingly desperate young bucks who have to make that big sale, er, get that story.  I also called them detectives.  Many scenes involve their efforts to interpret their interviewees' (in person and over the telephone) words, and what was said between the lines.  The effect becomes nearly hypnotic.  Director Alan J. Pakula does a masterful job of sustaining a level of suspense that is as riveting as that of any traditional thriller.

Pakula also continues his "paranoia" genre (KLUTE, THE PARALLAX VIEW), bringing it to its absolute pinnacle with ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN.  From the opening shots of the burglary to the parking garage meetings with "Deep Throat" (Hal Holbrook) and with all those sinister and frightening sounding voices on telephone lines, there is a palpable atmosphere of anxiety that has become a genre unto itself, one of my favorites.  Frightening and unnerving to the final typewriter keystrokes. 
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