All the President’s Men
It isn’t fair in All the President’s Men when, late in the movie, the camera does a slow zoom to a three-shot of a jowled and inelegant Richard Nixon, reciting the oath of office on the TV in the Washington Post’s newsroom, alongside the then-young, then-dashing, then-heart-throbbing Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman. Because whatever his vices may have been, and history has deemed that Nixon had many, one can only assume that none of them were the vice of vanity.
Nixon has enough screen time here to be considered part of the cast, as does just about every cabinet member of his that ever gave a televised press conference. The television is omnipresent throughout, acting as a roadmap of where we are. The movie assumes you already know the basic plot of what happened, and this is just fleshing out, and to a certain extent imagining, the circumstances. If you don’t have at least a passing knowledge of what the Watergate scandal was all about you‘ll probably get lost here. The movie will play with time, sometimes jumping whole weeks or months in between cuts, with very little indication of what is happening apart from press conferences being shown on TV.
The direction by Alan J. Pakula is impressive throughout the movie, made even more impressive when you realize this is only the fifth film he directed. It’s always interesting to see a watershed movie for the first time and see how it affected all of the movies that followed it. There are so many iconic scenes here that at first you want to brand it as being incredibly clichéd, but then realize that chances are it invented every one of those clichés. There’s the fast tracking shot of the protagonist running through the newsroom. The shots of arguments behind glass walls of a conference room while the protagonists sit and await their fate. And of course there’s the iconic Deep Throat scenes, all smoke and shadow and harsh magnesium lighting.
But aside from the cinematography of the shots, which is great, what really makes the movie work is the phenomenal pacing. Pakula does an impressive thing, and that is to create tension and genuine chills despite the fact that you know that there’s really no chance that the main characters won’t make it through to the end, given that they wrote the book that was the basis for the script. There are a lot of mediocre thrillers out there that could learn a thing or two from watching this movie.
As for the acting, it’s hard to find fault. Redford is simply the best of his, or possibly any, generation at being the Good Guy. Hoffman fits the fast-talking, fast thinking reporter with flexible morals like a glove. But the one who really steals the show is Jason Robarts as Ben Bradlee. He projects just the right mix of being a stern taskmaster and a cheerleader for his troops. At the end of the movie, when he has the line about the First Amendment, you want to stand up and cheer.
This is a textbook movie, in a couple ways. It’s historically significant, because the script was co-written by the people that the movie is about. It’s a time capsule, because at least a quarter of its 138 minute length is television coverage from the era. And finally, it’s a textbook movie because this movie watches like recruiting propaganda for journalism schools. I know, because movies like this, His Girl Friday, The Paper, and Citizen Kane were enough to get me to declare as a journalism major as a freshman. And all it took to get me to declare a comp-sci major was one month as a sports intern at the local paper, when I saw that the head sports editor was working the same six to midnight shift I was, and getting paid less than a starting programmer.
Sure, the movies make journalism look fun. But, as this movie takes pains to point out, every man has his price.
Tags: 5-star, Alan J. Pakula, All the President's Men, Ben Bradlee, Citizen Kane, Deep Throat, Dustin Hoffman, His Girl Friday, Jason Robarts, journalism, Richard Nixon, Robert Redford, The Paper, Watergate, Wood-Stein