Sunday, August 7, 2011

All the President's Men

AFI Top 100 Ranking: 77
Year: 1976
Writer: William Goldman (adaptation), Carl Bernstein & Bob Woodward (book)
Director: Alan J. Pakula
Star: Robert Redford, Dustin Hoffman, Jason Robards

For most of its running time, “All the President’s Men” is a fascinating, absorbing portrait of the slow, sometimes-desperate uncovering of the truth behind the Watergate break-ins. It takes a “just the facts, m’am” approach to its subject, content with the thought that the clues, details and conspiracies will be enough to make the film worthwhile while pushing aside characterization and emotional arcs.

The film begins showing us the details of the break-in, with a guard at the Watergate offices discovering a door has been taped so it cannot lock and reporting it to the police. Bob Woodward (Robert Redford), a reporter for the “Washington Post,” is called to cover the arraignment of the men who broke in, and is surprised to find they have an expensive lawyer on their side, the kind no one would expect. Woodward presses and begins to realize things aren’t right.

Another reporter becomes involved named Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman), and though the movie gets thousands of the small details of journalism right, his first major interaction with Woodward feels wrong. Woodward has typed up his version of certain events, turns it into copy and then Bernstein immediately takes it away and starts to rewrite it, citing the fact that Woodward did not introduce the main person involved with the story until the third paragraph. I understand that Woodward’s character is meant to be a new reporter for the “Post,” but I don’t buy that. I have a Bachelor’s in Newspaper Journalism, and just about the first thing they teach us (aside from that the AP Stylebook is our bible) is to write news stories using the pyramid structure. There’s no way Woodward would have ever been hired in the first place if he didn’t know better and was burying leads like that in news stories. It’s a small moment, sure, but it took me completely out of the movie.

Woodward and Bernstein (fellow employees at the “Post” jokingly call them “Woodstein” and it sticks) don’t have a lot to go on at first, and watching the investigation take its first fleeting steps toward being viable is engaging because it feels so real. This is what real newspapermen do when following leads and trying to envision the facts of a story. They reach wildly through smoke and hope to catch something, making calls and using their names to get people to talk (though their job clams people up ten times as often). An entire scene is devoted to Woodstein cheering and using the fact that a secretary double-talked as a major breakthrough, even though nothing she said could ever be used in the paper.

From these shaky first steps, the duo continue punching water, making hundreds of calls (there’s a great long take of Redford juggling two calls that is both funny and gripping) and looking for something…anything…that can help them. Director Alan J. Pakula gives us a spectacular shot from God’s point-of-view that sums up their journey wonderfully. He begins close on Woodstein going through thousands of library request forms and then slowly pulling back and up, the tables and library around them creating a complex labyrinth.

We learn little about Woodward or Bernstein’s relationship outside of the investigation and even less about their personal lives. This is purposeful, and we do get to know them a bit through their personalities. Though Bernstein is better at the writing, Woodstein is fantastic with interviewing and knows how to contort a question or ask just the right thing so that, even if the answer isn’t explicitly stated, it’s inferred. There are interesting, barely visible moments in the first half where Bernstein is visibly annoyed by Woodward’s questions, but as the movie progresses Bernstein gets better at asking the right questions too. This movie gets another aspect of journalism exactly right in that many of the people being questioned just assume that the reporters know everything already and, as a result, tell the reporters much more than they knew in the first place and, sometimes, give a big breakthrough to the story in the process.

Despite the lack of character development, Hoffman and Redford shine. Redford, in particular, proves here definitively that he is one of the great actors in the history of film. Though his good looks sometimes work against him, here he simply disappears into the character, leaving no trace of the movie star we thought we knew. Also of special note is Jason Robards as editor Ben Bradlee, who convinces us early and often that he’s a grizzled editor who cares enough about the story to let the team follow it, even though more experienced reporters might have been better suited.

Pakula gives the movie the feel of a thriller even if we know the reveals and the ending, and for most of the movie the pace is taut and the events suspenseful. I’m surprised it flows as well as it does and kept me engaged as fully as it did, especially considering the lack of character development. Sadly, the movie is over two hours long, and by about the one-hour-and-forty-five minute mark the reversals and doors kicked open to reveal nothing become repetitive and the pace disappears. Things get a bit interesting again when Pakula begins to play up the conspiracy angle, with the reporters afraid their homes are bugged and are looking behind themselves all the time to make sure they are not being followed.

Then, suddenly, the movie ends. Structurally, it feels like we have reached the end of the second act, with high-ups in the government denying what Woodstein are writing and Woodward learning from his contact Deep Throat that his life is in danger. Then Bradlee gives him a motivational speech to end all motivational speeches…and the movie ends. There’s a little closure in the form of an AP teletype showing us headlines for the next three years, ending with Nixon resigning, but that’s it. It’s a non-ending that endlessly frustrated me, especially considering the care Pakula and writer William Goldman took in making sure all the details of the build-up were right. To make a bad metaphor, we see the dominos set up but aren’t given the opportunity to enjoy watching them knocked down.

My Score (out of 5): ***1/2

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