All The President's Men Special Edition Review
Watergate wasn’t the first political scandal of the 20th century but it was the first to enter the American national consciousness through the medium of television, just as Vietnam was the first televised war. It’s ironic then that this incompetent burglary which eventually brought down a President was first exposed by the oldest media in existence amidst a campaign by certain television journalists which was designed to cover the whole thing up. The uncovering of the first stages of the affair, beginning with the peculiar nature of the burglars through to the first definite link with the White House was done in a journalistic white heat by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post and it is this period, one of the most significant in American public life, which All The President’s Men dramatises.
My colleague Anthony Nield has already done an admirable job of reviewing the film here so please consider this piece an adjunct to his, one in which I will offer a few fairly random observations on a film which doesn’t seem to have dated a jot over the past thirty years. It helps, of course, that it was a period piece when it was made and a punctiliously accurate one at that. However, back in 1976 it had the advantage of coming during a time when Watergate was still a household word and thus couldn’t help appearing politically and historically relevant. Now, most people either don’t know anything about Watergate or don’t remember the details so the achievement seems all the greater – All The President’s Men still feels completely relevant to us because it’s as much about a particular atmosphere as a particular case and that atmosphere of America in conflict with itself remains with us through the controversial election of Bush in 2000, 9/11, the Patriot Act and the war in Iraq. In a word, it’s about paranoia, the feeling that the big guys are watching you and tracking every single move you make, everything you say and everything you write.; more specifically, the sensation that out there is a huge government machine designed to deceive, cover-up, oppress and brainwash. We are all, in our own way, Davids facing the Goliaths of government machines and All The President’s Men is a classic David and Goliath story.
Indeed, the atmosphere is everything and it’s in this respect that the film scores its first triumph. You can give well deserved praise to George Jenkins for his production design, contrasting the harsh white of the Washington Post offices with the stone mazes of Washington political society and the terrifying isolation of the car park at night where Woodward meets Deep Throat. But I think particular credit should go to the cinematography of Gordon Willis for its exquisite control of light and dark; or to be precise, light, dark, darker and darkest. If there’s one thing everyone knows about Willis it is that his nickname is “The Prince Of Darkness” but what isn’t so often discussed is the way in which he works with gradations of darkness depending on the scene or character. You could note, for example, that, of the various head honchos at the Washington Post, Ben Bradlee is given the least light to his eyes or that the amount of light on Deep Throat varies minutely but still noticeably according to the point at which he appears in the story. I could swear too that the placing of light on Deep Throat changes somewhat but don’t quote me on that – it wouldn’t surprise me since Willis never places light without a good reason. In his use of darkness – perhaps obvious but oh so effective – Willis ensures a visual schema which works as an instrument of narrative. This is something he did to devastating effect in The Parallax View, where weird, off-centre compositions and crazy textures reflected the shifting nature of reality, but this is perhaps his finest work. Add to this the use of deep focus with a sliding dioptre and you have paranoia made visual.
Yet Willis is working in the service of two very clear visions which happen to complement each other, those of writer William Goldman and director Alan J. Pakula. Whatever you think of Goldman’s public persona – and egomaniacal is a word I would be tempted to use – there’s no doubt that when he’s on form there are few other writers of dialogue to match him. Line after line rings with truth and wit and even when he’s quoting verbatim, there seems to be a comic spin added on the end. He knows when to write just enough, allowing Redford and Hoffman time and space to give themselves to the characters, and he knows when to go for broke, usually with the colourful supporting cast. By all accounts, much of this comes from observation of the Post staff themselves – reportedly, metropolitan editor Harry Rosenfeld (Warden) was so funny at the editorial meetings that Goldman didn’t think people would believe a real person could be so spontaneously witty – but there’s no mistaking the Goldman stamp in a monologue such as this one given to the great Jason Robards:
”You know the results of the latest Gallup Poll? Half the country never even heard of the word Watergate. Nobody gives a shit. You guys are probably pretty tired, right? Well, you should be. Go on home, get a nice hot bath. Rest up... fifteen minutes. Then get your asses back in gear. We're under a lot of pressure, you know, and you put us there. Nothing's riding on this except the, uh, first amendment to the Constitution, freedom of the press, and maybe the future of the country. Not that any of that matters, but if you guys fuck up again, I'm going to get mad. Goodnight.”
Goldman’s other great achievement is to bring order to chaos, turning an incredibly complicated series of events into a reasonably clear narrative line – you might be a bit overburdened with facts at times but you’re never completely lost. A second or third viewing should bring into focus who Howard Hunt is, for example. Yet if you read the screenplay, it’s hard to see how it could have made such a compellingly cinematic experience without the input of a master director. Alan J. Pakula was ready for the challenge by this point in his career. Following some difficult early experiences - The Sterile Cuckoo for example – he struck gold with three films about urban paranoia; this one, The Parallax View and Klute. All of them work well enough as thrillers but they’re also character studies of completely believable people in extreme situations. He has a very clear vision of America in these movies – individuals at the mercy of monolithic organisations, often represented through intimidating, almost fascist, architecture
– and his career falters when he goes too far away from this basic theme. You can still see it in his underrated financial science-fiction film Rollover and it’s even there, in parts, in his adaptation of Presumed Innocent. But he needs this overriding vision to bind his films together I think and when they go wrong - Comes A Horseman would be a good example – you can see him floundering without a focus – although the presence of the theme doesn’t in itself guarantee success as The Pelican Brief demonstrates.
Warners special edition of All The President’s Men has been long awaited and I’m delighted to report that it’s very good, even if not quite as wonderful as we might have ideally hoped.
The anamorphic 1.85:1 transfer looks pretty damn good. It loses the artifacting which plagued the original disc and has considerably more richness both in terms of colour and detail. I’m not always convinced by the fleshtones which sometimes look very artificial but the dark look of the film seems to be faithful to the original intentions. The film grain is noticeable but pleasant and there are few problems with artifacting or print damage. The mono soundtrack is absolutely flawless. Some critics seem to want the film to be remastered in Dolby Digital 5.1 but I really can’t see the point. What we need is a sympathetic, careful transfer of the original sound mix and that’s what we get here.
The extras are, to be honest, a little bit disappointing. The feature commentary by Robert Redford is the best of them. He has a fair amount to say although his comments are quite sporadic and not always scene specific. He also repeats himself through his eagerness to stress the realism of the film and the courageousness of the characters. But it’s good to finally hear him on a commentary track. It’d be nice to hear him comment on one of his own films, especially Ordinary People. Also on the first disc are trailers for Pakula’s Klute, All The President’s Men, Rollover, Presumed Innocent and The Pelican Brief.
The second disc contains a selection of featurettes and none are completely satisfactory.
The main making-of feature runs about half an hour and seems to skate over the surface, particularly in comparison to the plodding but detailed documentaries on the Network and Dog Day Afternoon discs. It contains lots of interviews, notably with Redford, Hoffman and Gordon Willis, but there’s not all that much production information and there’s too much time spent talking to Woodward and Bernstein, who have a featurette of their own… Well, they do in theory but the 19 minute documentary about them turns out to be a philosophical piece about the role of the investigatory reporter in the mainstream media. This is all very well as far as it goes but I’d rather see some solid background and less blowing smoke up their backsides without getting close to them. Ideally, they would have been featured heavily in this feature and not so much in the making-of featurette. The same problem afflicts the 16 minute piece on Mark Felt, the associate FBI director who was ‘Deep Throat’. He was a fascinating man – and Woodward wrote a book about him – but this documentary skates over the surface and goes into generalisations about the importance of anonymous sources in investigatory journalism. All the documentaries – presented in anamorphic 1.85:1 - are narrated by Hal Holbrook and backed by music by John Williams which is taken from his scores for Presumed Innocent and JFK.
We also get a seven minute extract from an interview between the hideously saccharine Dinah Shore and a very elegant Jason Robards which doesn’t really get anywhere but is pleasant enough, and a ten minute vintage making-of featurette from the Warners archives which has the usual charm of these pieces. I love seeing these short movies and it’s always a pleasure to have one of them on a disc. The real value of this one is the amount of input from the highly eloquent Alan J. Pakula.
Once again, regrettably, the film has optional subtitles but the special features do not.
I thought this special edition had merits but it’s not the definitive package we deserve. More detail about Watergate – perhaps a commentary track from a specialist historian – and a more comprehensive making-of documentary would have made it better. But the film looks and sounds good and that’s what matters most.