All the President's Men Review

Having become synonymous with the intelligent thriller during the early part of the seventies courtesy of Klute and The Parallax View, Alan J. Pakula made a slight change in tact for his third film of the decade. Opting for reality – and recent history – 1976’s All the President’s Men tackled the Watergate scandal of only a few years’ previous. As with the book of the same name, it focussed on events through the eyes of Washington Post journalists Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, following their investigations as what initially seemed like a small-scale burglary in 1972 eventually grew into something with much wider repercussions including the resignation of President Nixon in 1974.

All of which would have been familiar to a contemporary and, hopefully, still is to this day. And so it begs the question: quite how do you make an effective thriller out of a situation whereby we already know the beginning and the end, if not quite all of the details in-between? Furthermore, how do you do so almost solely from the perspective of either Woodward or Bernstein, with no room (save for the opening sequence) for dramatic recreations, witnessing of the backroom machinations or representation of the likes of Nixon and many of the key players?

Perhaps luck plays a tiny given that Nixon has always proved to be something of a magic touch when it comes to cinema. His filmic canon, to date, has included Emile de Antonio’s superb 1971 documentary Millhouse: A White Comedy, Robert Altman’s Secret Honor and Oliver Stone’s grandiose, idiosyncratic biopic from 1995, not to mention the spectre which he casts all over Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm. Yet to pin this solely on luck would be to do the film a great disservice. All the President’s Men was no mere fluke, but a perfectly calibrated effort. As Robert Redford (who produced as well as playing Woodward) repeatedly points out in his commentary, the film was a true collaboration, drawing on many talents yet bringing them together into a cohesive whole. As well as Pakula it’s impossible (and unthinkable) to deny the contributions from writer William Goldman, director of photography Gordon Willis, production designer George Jenkins, composer David Shire, and the central quintet of players: Redford, Dustin Hoffman (as Bernstein), Jason Robards, Martin Balsam and Jack Warden. Plus there’s the supporting cast made up of a group best described as minor actors, though such a tag perhaps looks unkindly on what they can bring to a role, as anyone aware of John McMartin, say, or Dominic Chianese will surely confirm.

That said, the best place to start when attempting to understand All the President’s Men’s qualities is with Woodward and Bernstein. After all, they were the true source material both in terms of being the ostensible subjects and the authors of the book on which the film was based. Moreover, they also allowed themselves a role in the production by granting the filmmakers access to their original notes and indeed themselves, an element which cannot be underestimated especially given Hoffman’s zeal for the method. (During one of the featurettes he tells of how he installed himself at the Post for three months as part of his preparation.) As such we find ourselves with the central story being honoured simply because the people behind it are getting the exact same treatment. Admittedly this does lay the film open to accusations of whitewashing the pair (who only bad thing which can be said about either is Bernstein’s incessant chain-smoking), but it’s also key to its success. The essential realism of the piece gets latched onto and so everyone from Pakula downwards follows suit.

Indeed, Pakula’s approach is inauspicious, but not ill-defined. The aim is to be as unobtrusive as possible whilst sticking firmly to the real. Thus location work is fundamental and where this hasn’t been possible full-scale replication is in place. As a means of understanding the extent of Pakula’s focus, and that of his crew, consider the recreation of the Post’s newsroom whereby two entire sound stages were occupied (walls had to be removed) and genuine rubbish from the Post’s waste baskets was used. Needless to say, All the President’s Men therefore complements with a documentary-style shooting method which, save for two key aerial shots, is very simple and very straightforward. Long takes are favoured, each scene is captured at eye level, and even such common practices as reverse angles are only utilised when necessary.

Equally important is the sound design which again maintains this documentary-like veneer. There’s a terrific juxtaposition between the incessant noise of the newsroom and the utter silences of the pair’s doorstep meetings or Woodward’s clandestine engagements with “Deep Throat”, their key anonymous source. Moreover, so pertinent is this juxtaposition that David Shire’s score is barely needed. It comes as something of a shock to finally hear some music at approximately the hour mark given how utterly effective the film has been thus far without it. And from hereon it’s used only sparingly, though in every case it feels essential and never once a distraction.

Yet this may still leave some unconvinced. After all, All the President’s Men is nothing more that a film told through typewriters and telephones, is it not? And that’s hardly the kind of thing which ordinarily translates into exciting cinema, especially when conveyed in a documentary manner and relaying a story to which we already know the ending. Yet Pakula never once lets this thought cross our mind, presumably because it never crosses his. He takes each scene on its own terms and treats is as he would some grand set-piece. Even the earliest scenes, such as when Redford persistently bugs a lawyer at the Watergate burglars’ initial court appearance, are rendered extremely taut thereby drawing us in to every word or pronounced silence. Indeed, this persistence finds its match in the film itself, Pakula continually demanding that we pay attention and pick up the details. Hence the documentary tone, but also an attention to rhythms. As with the contrast between noise and silence, so too each of the scenes operates on one of two levels: long, drawn out and tension heavy, as in the attempts to get witnesses to speak, or rather slip up; and punchier exchanges as when Woodward and Bernstein or the pair and their editors argue over details or slowly begin to realise the extent of the bigger picture.

Furthermore, the overall realism allows the cloak-and-dagger elements a far greater weight. Despite being wholly based on fact, the “Deep Throat” scenes in empty underground garages past midnight or the use of a red flag as a means of covert communication could have come straight out of some pulp novel. Yet when placed in this larger environment not only do they avoid such pitfalls, but also become far more effective as a result. What’s more, Gordon Willis’ skill is such that he can create a terrific atmosphere without surrendering to heightened forms. His photography remains expectedly impressive during these moments, but without having to descend into noir-ish devices, say, and as such the “Deep Throat” scenes still feel very much a part of this bigger picture.

Despite all this, however, you also cannot deny that Redford and Hoffman’s Hollywood ethos rubs off on the picture a great deal and, indeed, proves utterly vital. Of course, they’re surrounded by fine players – it’s always a pleasure to see Balsam playing sweaty and scruffy, whilst Robards deservedly bagged his Oscar for lending his portrayal of editor Ben Bradlee just the right amount of gravitas – but then they also have that added tinkle which allows them to go that little bit further. Together they’re able to communicate the charisma and determination which characterised Woodward and Bernstein and clearly allowed them to get as far as they did. Yet at the same time there’s also little in the way of true grandstanding – it’s perhaps worth noting that Hoffman was coming off the back of Bob Fosse’s Lenny (another real-life portrayal, in this cast the comedian Lenny Bruce) and therefore relishing the chance to play something a little less intense, a little softer.

Interestingly it’s also been retrospectively proven, to my mind at least, that both Redford and Hoffman make a greater impact when playing opposite someone. Think of Hoffman’s most popular and warmly regarded roles and you find that they’re always performances which play-off another actor: Jon Voight in Midnight Cowboy, Tom Cruise in Rain Man, his onscreen son in Kramer vs. Kramer. Similarly, Redford remains best remembered for his pairings with Paul Newman, whilst more recently Sneakers has shown that he can, for want of a better word, sneak into an ensemble without disrupting the balance. In other words, both can switch their movie star egos and this is undoubtedly important in terms of the roles they’re playing. We’re able to detect Woodward and Bernstein’s relative inexperience as well as their hunger, yet at the same time it’s clearly not impossible that they could pull these things off or gain something of a celebrity status as their investigations moved on. And as I’ve already said, in capturing their characters All the President’s Men therefore also captures the story. Ultimately it doesn’t matter that we know so much because, for the two hours-plus, the film takes us back to this time and keeps us utterly, unerringly rapt.

The Disc

Finally replacing the barebones release that first appeared during DVD’s early days, Warner Bros are now issuing All the President’s Men in the condition it deserves, namely as a two-disc full of worthy extras and with a fine presentation. Beginning with this latter aspect, it’s undoubtedly true that this particular release betters the previous one. Whilst some scenes still demonstrate a highly noticeable grain and are occasionally subject to moderate flicker, we’re nonetheless getting a spotless print in fine condition. The colours are sharp, the blacks are solid and the clarity is, for the most part, fine. (With regards to this latter element, some scenes suffer ever so slightly to softness, though this never proves to be distraction.) Note also that the film comes at a ratio of 1.78:1 (anamorphically enhanced, of course) which isn’t quite the original 1.85:1, though for many this shouldn’t be a problem.

As for the soundtrack, thankfully Warners have decided against a pointless 5.1 remix and are instead issuing the film solely with the original mono (as DD1.0). And it must be said that it is also in absolutely fine condition. For a film which plays so heavily on its dialogue and its sound design the soundtrack really does need to be free of any problems, and thankfully this proves to be the case.

Of the extras, the piece which is likely to garner the most attention is Redford’s commentary. Having served, as said, as producer and actor, this is clearly a film which is very proud of and it shows throughout. From the start it becomes apparent that he’s done his homework and as such we get a full, detailed listening experience. Admittedly he does dry up around about the hour mark, but for the first half he covers pretty much everything we could wish for. Perhaps the most interesting of his revelations is that he initially planned for the film to be a simply a “small black and white movie with two unknowns” which he would produce but not appear in.

Adding to Redford’s recollections are the various featurettes on the second disc which offer, respectively, an overall ‘making of’ piece, a look at “Deep Throat” (or rather Mark Felt as we now know his identity) and journalism in general. To be honest, these pieces aren’t perfect given their incessant lachrymose background scoring and unnecessarily big voice-over narration from Hal Holbrook, but then they do include contributions from Redford, Hoffman, Willis and Goldman, not to mention the real life Bernstein, Woodward and Bradlee. Also cropping up are Walter Cronkite and, as you’d perhaps expect, Oliver Stone.

Understandably, neither Pakula or Robards could be present for these new interviews and so the disc also features an original featurette from 1976 on the film’s making plus an interview with Robards from the Dinah! show as a means of allowing them a voice as well. Certainly, both pieces are brief and as such don’t cover quite as much material as we’d like, but it’s the right decision to have included them and when combined with the other featurettes do add up to a fuller coverage.

Rounding off the package we also find the original theatrical trailer plus a trailer for Pakula’s 1981 thriller Rollover on the first disc.

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Last updated: 19/04/2018 06:17:56

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