I’ve been thinking about this movie for the past couple of days for obvious reasons, and I actually sat down and re-watched it today. This movie is 40 years old. It was nominated for Best Picture in a year when Rocky won and two of the other nominees were AFI top 100 films in Network and Taxi Driver. All the President’s Men is a fine film in its own right, based on the book by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward about their reporting on the Watergate scandal for the Washington Post. Coming out only a couple of years after the scandal that rocked our nation to its core and brought down a president must have been very jarring to be sure. This is a dramatic film that plays out like a detective story as Woodward (Robert Redford) and Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) piece together the clues of the original break in that slowly and steadily morphs into the biggest scandal of the 20th Century. Along with a cast that includes Jason Robards, Jack Warden, Hal Holbrook, Jane Alexander, Meredith Baxter, Stephen Collins, and many, many more, this film has top-notch acting, exceptional direction by Alan Pakula, and a marvelous screenplay by William Goldman.
Why it’s essential.
It is that screenplay that I’d like to start out discussing. This is one of those movies that you really have to pay attention to. There are a lot of details in this story that you have to be able to keep up with in order to be able to follow the plot. Goldman also used some great plot techniques to up the tension. For instance, there’s a point where they’re working on an aspect of the story and they find out that the New York Times is working on the same thing and has much of the same information. So now it’s not just about getting to the bottom of the conspiracy, but they also raise the stakes by putting them in a race to the finish against a rival organization. Goldman also did a great job of putting obstacles in Woodward and Bernstein’s way. Whether it’s would-be witnesses and sources continuously slamming doors in their faces or witnesses denying their Grand Jury testimony after an article is written, these two protagonists constantly have rugs pulled out from underneath them, and they’re constantly having to overcome these obstacles in creative and clever ways.
This is also a very dialogue-heavy film. That’s usually a problem for me except for when the dialogue is this exceptionally written by the screenwriter and delivered by the actors. Goldman expertly gave each character an individual voice, and the performances of the actors are terrific without exception. If you’re going to have a lot of dialogue in the film, then you’d better also have a lot of good actors to deliver it, and All the President’s Men delivers on both fronts.
Speaking of the acting, I think most people would agree that both Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman are among the finest actors of the twentieth century, and both of them have multiple iconic performances that have transcended cinema and become well known as parts of our popular culture. In All the President’s Men they share the screen very effectively. They work off of each other with their characters somewhat adversarial at first, and then their relationship and partnership drive the story with each character bringing separate strengths and weaknesses to the story. Perhaps these aren’t the most memorable or iconic roles for either actor, but they each gave very strong and believable performances with subtleties and nuances that made me feel like I was watching real life unfold and while at the same time understanding that I was watching top notch performances.
But not only do Redford and Hoffman give stellar performances, but so too do many of the supporting cast. Jason Robards as the paper’s editor Ben Bradlee serves as the protagonists’ archetypal mentor, as well as sometimes shapeshifting into an enemy. The inimitable Jack Warden plays Metro Editor Harry Rosenfeld, who fought to keep the young and inexperienced reporters on the story. Hal Holbrook was only in a couple of scenes as Deep Throat, but his performance was as riveting as it was haunting. There were many other recognizable character actors like Ned Beatty and the previously mentioned Jane Alexander, Meredith Baxter and Stephen Collins round out a cast that was solid and as strong as any supporting cast that you’ll ever see.
Another aspect about this film that I love is the way that it’s shot, as well as the way that it’s edited. There is a very sparse score, which is reminiscent of Network, which came out the same year, and didn’t have any score at all. In many ways this film is almost shot like a documentary, especially the scenes in the news room and the scenes where they’re interviewing people. However, during the scenes where Woodward is talking to Deep Throat in the parking garage, the style of shooting becomes very cinematic. The lighting is very dramatic, and we’re never able to see Deep Throat entirely, as much of his face and body are hidden in shadow as a way of telling us that this man is mysterious and perhaps not entirely trustworthy. It’s also worth noting that he never gives Woodward complete information, so the fact that we never completely see him adds to the mystery of who he is and the information that he’s giving.
Finally there is one more component that makes this film essential and that is its theme about the importance of freedom of the press, as well as the importance of an unbiased press that serves as a true watchdog to potential governmental malfeasance and tyranny. Not only were Woodward and Bernstein watchdogs, they were also bulldogs going after the truth with tenacity and an insatiable desire to find the truth. the more they dug, the more dirt they found, and without that tenacity the true scope of the Watergate scandal may never have been uncovered. The fact that they were free as journalists to uncover this kind of corruption is one of the thin threads that keeps our democracy viable, and All the President’s Men shows reminds us that we should never lose sight of the importance of a free press.
Overall this is a terrific movie. It is dramatic and tense and thoughtful. It’s also pretty relevant to the times we’re living in at the moment, and if you’ve never seen it or haven’t seen it for a long time, I highly recommend checking it out.