The Film Canon: All the President’s Men (1976)

All the President's MenSome movies know they’re movies. If done well, they are aware that their job is to tell us a story, and invite us along for the ride. Whenever you hear a movie described as a ‘satire’, ‘parable’, or ‘epic’ – as well as anything labelled sci-fi or fantasy – you know that the movie knows it’s a movie. Other movies plop you into the middle of real life, an alarming world populated by characters who talk and think and act like real people. These movies don’t give us a nice fifteen minute block of exposition and character introductions to situate ourselves in the cozy atmosphere of our living rooms. They don’t always respect the rules of storytelling, and if the ending happens to be happy, it comes with a grain of salt. All the President’s Men is one of these movies.

The history of Hollywood movies has painted a glamorized picture of journalists and reporters, who apparently spend their abundant leisure time schmoozing celebrities and dating their interviewees. Numerous other recent movies have vilified the profession as a pool of vicious and self-serving sharks. All the President’s Men is doesn’t give credence to either interpretation – these reporters are on the bottom of the rung. They routinely have doors slammed in their faces and agitated interviewees hanging up on them, but they remain dedicated to the ideals of American truth and justice – even when injustice and corruption is staring them in the face from the television set. We get the feeling that they live and breathe the Washington Post. In the few glimpses we get of Bob Woodward’s (Robert Redford) apartment, we are enveloped in a mess of papers and piles. The only time we view a semblance of Carl Bernstein’s (Dustin Hoffman) personal life is when he has lunch with an old friend purely for the possibility of gaining a new source.

The story, or at least the rough outline, has been discussed and dissected across the country and the globe. Five men are arrested attempting to break into the Democratic National Convention headquarters in the Watergate building. The mundane local news is covered by Woodward, who’s been with the Post nine months. It’s a routine story. Then something rather unusual comes up: one of the burglars’ notebooks has the name of a former CIA employee and the letters “W.H.” scribbled inside.

Senior editor Harry M. Rosenfeld (Jack Warden) convinces fellow editor Howard Simon (Martin Balsam) to give the harmless little story to bottom feeders Woodward and Bernstein. “Howard, they’re hungry. Remember when you were hungry?” Rosenfeld pleads.

The duo follow a trail of close misses, red herrings, reluctant leads, and deceptive government employees. Redford and Hoffman spit out names, acronyms, and figures like the rest of us say ‘hello’, and we’re entangled in a complex web of lies, sources, and “non-denial denials.” It’s difficult to follow, and at times you will be hopelessly lost, but it doesn’t much matter. There is always another clue to follow, and another outrageous implication it has. The film finds time for two spectacular supporting turns amidst the madness. Jane Alexander, who would go on to costar with Dustin Hoffman in 1979’s Oscar winner Kramer vs. Kramer, is a captivating nervous wreck of a source working for what the Post editors have dubbed CREEP – the Committee to Re-elect the President. There are several incredible scenes in which Woodward consults with the infamous Deep Throat (Hal Holbrook) in darkened garages, and Holbrook invests the shadowy character with a palpable aura of mystery and paranoia.

As the film grows progressively more serious and the case increasingly controversial, we see more and more of the Post‘s executive editor, Ben Bradlee (Jason Robards). He’s a man who’s no-nonsense but’s secretly a hopeless optimist, who speaks lazily but powerfully. Wise and crass at the same time, the perfection of Robards’ performance is demonstrated in the quietly iconic way that Bradlee puts up his feet on the editor’s desk. When Woodward and Bernstein rush to his home in the finale, we see the irreverent determination coursing through every muscle in Robards’ face.

Director Alan J. Pakula, who also oversaw To Kill a Mockingbird, and cinematographer Gordon Willis, who also photographed the iconic settings in The Godfather trilogy and Annie Hall, move effortlessly from the frenzied comfort of the Washington Post‘s cubicles to darkened subterranean rendezvous. “You can’t, in my mind, put both feet into a bucket of cement and leave them there for the whole movie. It doesn’t work. You must have [relativity],” explained Willis.

There are some movies that are great, and there are some movies that are important. All the President’s Men is as important as it is great – a landmark film that calls back to an era of uncertainty and anger. As the film’s final scene would have it, our trusty newspapermen have shot down the president with their typewriters. Never before had a man invested with such authority orchestrated a crime so great and slipped away. As we watch, we realize that an entire decade of film, from the hellish parables of Scorsese to the newfound gravitas and sadness in Allen’s work, has been justified in two and a half hours of celluloid. Here are reporters who are shocked as hell, and Howard Beale is waiting in the wings. This skepticism has influenced film, music, and politics ever since, and I doubt it will ever stop doing so. Woodward and Bernstein disassembled an era, and nobody – not even all the President’s men – could ever put it back together again.

FINAL RATING: 9/10  ★★★★★★★★★

FINAL SAY: All the President’s Men is an honest and riveting documentation of one of the darkest chapters in America’s history. It’s cast and crew deliver a film meant not just for the Nixon era, but for the ages.

Maxwell’s a fifteen year old critic and writer whose ideal life would feature several Academy Awards as a Hollywood writer and director, homes in Venice and Paris, a personal correspondence with JK Rowling, and the superpower to eat as much bacon and ice cream (not together) as possible while remaining in shape (to the standards of a nerd, of course). He enjoys acting in Shakespearean productions and improvisational comedy in Wisconsin, and his favorite film is David Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. You can contact him at maxwell@theyoungfolks.com.
  • Anita

    I don't own a copy of this film, but every time it comes on tv, I make an effort to watch it. I'm old enough to have memories of the Watergate hearings and remember watching Senator Sam Ervin (from my home state) preside over all the madness. This film is a must see for every kid in school as part of their American history lessons. Every actor is stellar and the cast is a bounty of the greats. Agreed, the first few times I watched I kind of got lost in all the who's who that the reporters rapidly spit out, but it definitely is worth watching. Excellent review and insight from a reviewer who wasn't even born when our government faced one of its most humiliating and eye-opening times.

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