All the President’s Men (1976)
It’s a political film. It’s a newspaper film. It’s a mystery film. It’s a gripping drama, even though everyone knew how the story ends.
Great films don’t have to be in your face, obvious, or beat you over the head. Great films start with a story that begs to be told. Political stories are a tough sell. Politics play out on TV, social media and in real life. Making a political story into a compelling film is like finding a virgin after prom night.
All the President’s Men is like finding a treasure chest in the attic that contains pieces of a person’s life. Each piece is interesting but you don’t see the significance until it’s all in front of you and you’ve connected the dots to reveal something of deep meaning.
The film has a spine: the pursuit of the story, one clue at a time. You know who did it but not why, and where does it ultimately lead. Many scenes sparkle with newspaper technique and side notes that pull you into Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s world.
I’ve seen the film several dozen times yet with each viewing I hang on each scene like if I don’t pay attention I won’t be able to follow the story. Obviously, I know how it ends. The film unfolds slowly, like a symphony, each note is followed by the next and you’re soon on a journey with twists and turns to a destination you know, but a route never traveled.
The film popularized the “Deep Throat” character tag along with the “follow the money” line (which was not in the book, it was written for the film). The book, and then film, made Woodward and Bernstein famous and they cashed in with book deals or higher profile better jobs. Robert Redford developed the film project through his production company and hired Academy Award winning writer (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) William Goldman to adapt the book.
Goldman took the massive book and reduced it, but left in a significant of detail that can be confusing to the viewer, even after more than forty years of knowing the story. This is not a documentary but in some ways it feels like it. The world of the reporter might have been Hollywoodized, but the film is far from the glitzy, stylized Hollywood A-List film.
The book was a bestseller which Redford purchased. Redford later said that he never intended to star in the film, but distributor Warner Bros. insisted.
“When we sat down to write a book, the book that we started to write was not about us; it was about Watergate,” Carl Bernstein said. “Woodward came up to me one day and said he’d gotten a call from Redford, and I said, ‘What the hell about?’ And he said, well, he thinks the story is really us.”
Redford and Goldman were very purposeful about how the story was to be told, through the eyes of reporters Woodward and Bernstein.
“One guy was a Wasp; the other guy was a Jew. One guy was a Republican; the other guy was a radical liberal. They didn’t really care for each other, but they had to work together. And I thought, that dynamic is character-driven, and I liked that,” Redford said.
The film is about how the characters are forced to work together to unravel the mystery. The film is not about their lives or who they are as much as how they work and the drive to get to the end of the mystery.
Today’s films overly rely on shock filmmaking methodology – constantly moving camera, fast editing and continuous musical cues that telegraph mood. Tell the story quickly and keep the sound and visuals punched up or the audience will lose attention. Entertain but don’t try to challenge viewers.
Director Alan J. Pakula violates every one of today’s filmmaking laws. His camera doesn’t move unless the tracking is making a point. There is sparse music, only as transition and to heighten mood, not create mood. Viewers are smart enough to know what feeling to have. His scenes are sometimes long with minimal editing. His actors are telling a short story within the scene. Pakula keeps the drama on point.
Pukula also directed The Pelican Brief, Presumed Innocent, Sophie’s Choice, Comes a Horseman, The Parallax View and Klute. Before becoming a director, Pakula produced The Stalking Moon, Up the Down Staircase, Inside Daisy Clover, Baby the Rain Must Fall, Love with the Proper Stranger and To Kill a Mockingbird. To say he could tell a story is an understatement.
The film’s all-star cast included Redford, Dustin Hoffman, Hal Holbrook, Jason Robards, Jack Warden, Martin Balsam, John McMartin, Jane Alexander, Ned Beatty and many fine actors.
“We’re under a lot of pressure, you know, and you put us there—nothing’s riding on this except the First Amendment of the Constitution, freedom of the press and maybe the future of the country. Not that any of that matters, but if you guys fuck up again I’m going to get mad.”
That little speech above is delivered by Robards playing Washington Post executive editor Ben Bradlee near the end of the film. The stakes were very high.