All the President’s Men (1976) is an intense, paranoid drama about journalism. It’s about writing a story when you don’t know what the story is.
Naturally, this is a film about words and, to emphasize this, we see evidence of words everywhere. Newspapers and manuals crowd journalists’ desks. Shelves of books line editors’ offices. Stacks of paper occupy journalists’ apartments.
Then there are the actors themselves, who are continually writing – in dog-eared notebooks, on matchbook covers, on typewriters smudged with ink.
Dangerous words are being written. Words that, once published, are not easily taken back. Words that will end careers, and put government officials in prison.
They are words that will topple an American president.
All the President’s Men is adapted from the 1974 nonfiction bestseller by Washington Post journalists Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward. It chronicles their investigation of the Watergate cover-up that ended Richard Nixon’s presidency.
The two Post journalists are originally assigned to cover an unusual burglary in the Watergate office building in Washington, D.C. In June of 1972, five well-dressed but non-savvy men break into the Democratic National Committee headquarters late at night. The journalists soon discover these clumsy burglars have expensive lawyers, as well as connections in the Nixon administration.
The Watergate scandal happened more than 40 years ago but, aside from the manual typewriters and rotary-dial phones, the film feels fresh. It’s a fascinating look at journalists fumbling their way through a maze, not quite grasping where it leads. This gritty, quasi-documentary depicts the frustration and fruitless hours spent on a story that refuses to be told.
In one scene, director Alan J. Pakula centers the camera on Redford during a phone call. Redford is tense, focused, stubbornly trying to pry information from a source. The camera then sequesters Redford; the more shocking the news Redford receives, the closer the camera inches towards him. It’s one camera, one shot, and the result is so taut you hardly dare breathe.
Scenes like this make you all too aware of the director’s interference, which is something we (as in, yours truly) normally dislike.
In fact, Pakula is directing us (the audience) while he’s directing the camera, but we don’t mind. We’re grateful. Because in a film crammed with dead ends and unanswered questions, it’s a relief to be shown what’s relevant.
For example, look at the image below. It’s an overhead shot of Hoffman and Redford in the Library of Congress. They sit at one of these tables, combing through hundreds of slips of paper. Pakula’s camera starts at the table, then pulls upwards until you can’t identify the two men at all. It gives you an overwhelming sense of what they’re up against.
Meanwhile, the investigating and the writing continue; the rhythmic clacking of typewriters providing the film’s soundtrack.
From the beginning, the film never lets us forget the words that are poured into the Watergate story. The opening sequence, for instance, shows us a blank sheet of paper in a typewriter. Suddenly, the words June 1, 1972 are pounded into the page with loud, angry strokes.
One of the most haunting images in the film occurs near the end, in the Post newsroom. A television is broadcasting President Nixon’s swearing-in ceremony, an affair laced with military music, balloons, and a 21-gun salute. The camera slowly moves forward until we see Redford and Hoffman behind the television set, hunched over keyboards, oblivious to the televised goings-on – which now seem hollow.
The men type steadily, deliberately, the typewriter keys like pickaxes, hammering at a presidency that will not be able to withstand it.
All the President’s Men was nominated for eight Oscars and won four, including the award for best adapted screenplay.
It really is a film you ought to see.
All the President’s Men: starring Dustin Hoffman, Robert Redford, Jason Robards, Jr. Directed by Alan J. Pakula. Written by William Goldman. Warner Bros., 1976, Colour, 138 mins.
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