All the President’s Men (1976) dir. Alan J. Pakula
Starring: Dustin Hoffman, Robert Redford
“All the President’s Men” is a film that will stand to the test of time as the quintessential political thriller. Yet, it’s a work of surprising matter-of-fact simplicity.
The film is based on the best-selling book by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein on how they broke the story of the Watergate Scandal. Woodward and Bernstein are the main characters, two young hungry journalists from the Washington Post trying to uncover a scandal involving a break-in at the Democratic National Headquarters in the famed Watergate Hotel. They quickly learn the break-in was not a simple burglary but an elaborately-planned wiretapping scheme organized by the Committee to Re-elect the President (appropriately acronymed, C.R.E.E.P.). Woodward and Bernstein unravel the conspiracy by tracing the cause and effect up the political chain all the way to the President’s office.
The title is appropriate because the film is a series of ‘connect-the-dots’ to solve the puzzle. One man’s information leads to another man, who leads to another man and so on and so on. These are the “President’s men”, whose the orders of an anxious President trickled down to his subordinates and caused such heinous crimes against the democratic system.
We learn a lot about the procedures and workmanship of journalists in a CSI-like procedural fashion. It’s fascinating. The telephone proves to be a powerful weapon for the journalists. Many of characters we don’t even see, only hear through the multitude of phone calls from Woodward and Bernstein. We learn of their techniques to gain credible information, yet keep the identities of their sources safe. It’s also a little history lesson in investigative journalism before the age of the internet and the cell phone. For a good companion piece to this, also watch Michael Mann’s “The Insider.”
The newsroom is exciting, the constant sound of typing, printing, ringing telephones, televisions, and news chatter permeate the working environment. Gordon Willis’ camera follows the characters across the expansive room, moving through cubicles like a football player towards the endzone.
All the actors are in top form and perfectly cast, Redford with his charm and suave good manners allows him to cut straight to the point, Hoffman portrays Bernstein like a bull, who’ll get the information he wants no matter what. The great character actor, the late Jack Warden, brings working-class humour to his role as their department head, and Jason Robards is perfect as the consummate editor-in-chief, who supports his staff to the end, but from whom he demands the absolute best work.
“All the President’s Men” breaks all the rules of conventional filmmaking, other than telling a good story. It’s a razor-sharp thriller, yet there is no action or fighting or death, there’s no physical antagonist, no subplots, no romantic relationships, and the main characters don’t arc in traditional ways, in fact, we don’t learn anything about their lives, they are simply instruments to uncover the facts. But these facts are like daggers, because we all know the stakes and the damage caused by the actions of these men. Despite these anomalies the film is suspenseful, dramatic and gripping from beginning to end. Enjoy.