Monday 3 January 2011

Movie Review: All The President's Men (1976)

The uncovering of the Watergate scandal was a real-life thriller; translating it to the screen was never going to be easy.  All The President's Men takes the concept of investigative journalism as far as it can go in terms of a cinematic experience.  The drama is good; the entertainment modest.

After the police arrest burglars in the act of breaking into the Democratic National Committee Headquarters in the Watergate complex in Washington DC, relatively inexperienced news reporter Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) of The Washington Post starts to notice expensive lawyers being mysteriously appointed to represent the suspects. Woodward soon learns that the burglars had been in touch with Howard Hunt, formerly of the CIA and consultant to high-level Nixon Administration staff members. More senior reporter Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) joins forces with Woodward, and soon they uncover a hidden slush fund used by the Committee to Re-Elect President Nixon. The fund is used to finance dirty tricks against the President's opponents, and the journalists come to the realization that no more than five men control the money.

Getting anyone to talk is a struggle, but The Post's Executive Editor Ben Bradlee (Jason Robards) provides the necessary guidance, while Woodward leans heavily on a secret source within the Nixon Administration dubbed Deep Throat (Hal Holbrook) to keep the story alive. The Post is risking its reputation by pursuing the story based on anonymous sources, but finally Woodward and Bernstein are able to connect the pieces and force the scandal into the open: the dirty tricks campaign was approved straight from the White House. Their investigation results in the 1974 resignation of President Nixon.

Not unexpectedly, the work of Woodward and Bernstein consisted of making countless phone calls, preparing numerous type-written reports; and conducting endless interviews to chase down leads and try to shake tongues loose. Director Alan J. Pakula, working from the script based on the book of the same name by Woodward and Bernstein, does his best to make political journalism an engaging film experience. But ultimately, only so much interest can be generated by filming phone conversations and men sitting at typewriters. Doors slamming in the face of Woodward and Bernstein are about as heightened as the tension gets, other than the overly dramatic encounters between Woodward and his Deep Throat source in a darkened parkade. The latter half of the film gets seriously bogged down in endless conversations about numerous names of men who are never seen on the screen.

The film does highlight the not-so-subtle differences between the two journalists. Bernstein's insidious interview style is contrasted with Woodward's more honest and respectful approach.  Bernstein is quick to jump to conclusions with few supporting facts; Woodward is more careful to fill the gaps before deciding on the full picture. And the film is an ode to the typewriter: effectively, the clattering of typewriters is the soundtrack of the movie.

But All The President's Men does disappoint in revealing next to nothing about Woodward and Bernstein outside the newsroom. Other than Bernstein's impressive chain-smoking, the two men remain total blanks as far as personalities outside of work.

A lot of solid middle-aged character actors round out the cast, playing the senior grey heads at The Washington Post. Jason Robards, Jack Warden and Martin Balsam do a lot of sweating, arm waving and shouting in white shirts as the newspaper sticks its neck out to follow the story.

All The President's Men is an important chronicle of the potential positive power that lies within honest, uncorrupted journalism.  That this does not make for a great movie experience does not lessen the importance of the message.

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