Directed by Alan J. Pakula
All The President’s Men is one of the most entertaining films I’ve seen recently. After watching this I wanted to live in the atmosphere of late nights, too much coffee, typewriters and secret aliases, kind of like how every Western I see makes me briefly consider relocating to a ghost town for an indefinite period of time.
In this story, released only two years after President Nixon left office, we follow two incredibly famous actors from the 1970s playing a couple Washington Post Reporters. I was kind of amazed at how easily Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman blended into their roles as Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, respectively.
I’ve recently seen a lot of films from the 1970s, and there are a lot of great ones, but I think this might be the poster child for 1970s cinema. That’s probably not fair to a number of films that I’m sure are better, but this one combined a politically topical story (and highly charged at that) with financial success, wide appeal, two iconic actors from the era and President Nixon. The film I just watched and wrote about, Shampoo makes an effort to show Nixon’s election in the background of the main plot. Nixon, his presidency, his scandal, the war, etc. were all in the air at this time. Well, that’s what it seems at least.
We begin this story with the Watergate break in, probably the most action-packed scene of the film, which says more about the rest of this film than this exact scene. The rest of the story mainly deals with angry conversations, knocking on doors, making calls, close ups of notebooks with words highlighted like “good god” and “CIA,” and typewriters, but it’s very gripping. Bob Woodward is first to the story after he’s assigned to it. He quickly notices that something is amiss when the watergate burglars have lawyers hired for them before they could have ever made a phone call to request such lawyers. It’s apparent that the burglary into Democratic Headquarters goes beyond these five thieves.
Carl Bernstein throws himself into the mix when he starts rewriting Woodward’s story, and while they consider working together on their own, they are almost immediately assigned to work together. In other films they would butt heads more than they do, but both characters are so driven to shed light on this story that they work together in almost perfect unison. When Bernstein pushes someone too far, Woodward apologizes and says they’ll back off. On several occasions this good cop-bad cop dynamic works out perfectly. When they need a list of members of the Committee to Re-Elect the President, they ask a coworker whose ex-boyfriend is a member, to get them the list if possible. She is reluctant and slightly offended at the request given how it bleeds into her personal life. Woodward apologizes and says they understand, and in the next shot she hands him the complete list.
On other occasions, Bernstein is free to push someone as far as he’s willing to. This is how he finds himself returning to the home of a woman on that committee who has already asked them to leave. He gets himself into the house and pries into her with a gentle voice though he knows she will kick him out of the house at any moment.
Anyways, the point is they do an incredible job. This film celebrates them as journalists and journalism as a whole. A lot of familiar story beats are hit here in a film of this genre. They face adversity from the people they’re investigating but also from the people they work for and in their industry. Other newspapers decide not to cover this story, unaware of how deep it goes. The Washington Post receives pressure to distance itself from Woodward and Bernstein when they reach too far, and a source denies making a particular claim. It’s particularly relevant in today’s world with fake news and a host of unreliable sources. It’s inspiring to see how devoted Woodward and Bernstein are to the story and to getting it right.
There is also a threat of violence which never occurs but serves to frighten the protagonists and thrill the audience. This too is very familiar to a film of this genre. In other ways, though, the film subverts the thriller/spy/mystery/whatever genre it fits into. When it gets too serious, the characters push back.
There is a very serious conversation between Carl Bernstein and the committee member whose house he politely forces himself into. She looks like she’s being interrogated because she basically is even though she doesn’t realize how easy it might be to stand up and tell him to leave. The light in the scene shines directly into her face like in an interrogation room, casting a hard shadow on the wall behind her. Bernstein has her where he wants her. He says things the right way to get what he wants. Bernstein invited himself into the house when he saw a pack of cigarettes and asked the woman’s sister if he could have one. Before waiting for an answer he’s already in the house. Then the woman’s sister asks him if he wants coffee, and of course he says yes because he knows it assures him more time in the house.
This conversation between him and the committee member is long and tense. At the end, having gotten what he wants, Bernstein remarks how cold the coffee is. It’s an amusing line and one that caught me off guard. In another earlier scene between the two reporters, Bernstein absent mindedly tosses a cookie to Woodward who knocks it out of the air and says “I don’t like cookies” before swiftly returning to what he was saying.
There are a few other moments that I’m struggling to recall, but these small moments are great little character moments that either make their relationship more clear or make the characters feel more real. It’s also just impressive to see how Redford and Hoffman talk with each other. Their dialogue feels like a boxing match, extremely well choreographed.
The film ends rather quickly, much faster than I anticipated. They get the information they need and the validation they need to publish the story. The film finishes with a close up shot of a typewriter announcing the consequences of their story, ending with Nixon’s resignation. Underneath the bold sounds of the typewriter are the sound of the 21 gun salute. The last we see of Woodward and Bernstein is them typing away both quietly and loudly (the machine), working away and not celebrating their victory because it’s not a big victory so much as it’s their job.
There are several shots in this film that blend two frames in order to keep multiple plains of view in focus. In one such shot, the second to last one, the camera slowly pushes in on the newsroom. In the foreground we see a television set with President Nixon on it and in focus. In the distant background we see Woodward and Bernstein typing away, also in focus. This wouldn’t naturally be possible unless you had an incredibly flat perspective or they were staged to be really close to each other, physically. Instead these are separate shots, with the focal length adjusted, and then blended together. You can see the heavy blur of the portion of the screen that has been spliced.
It’s an interesting choice. I like the effect, but the first time I saw this, the blurring of the screen bothered me. It felt very abstract, but the distortion felt more thematic by the end. The reporters never pay attention to the tv set in the newsroom, but they know what’s going on. Nixon and his administration are hovering over them and their story, they just don’t know it right away. These shots smash them all together, like a beautiful painting that illustrates the story itself. It’s two reporters, their typewriters up against Nixon and the entire White House.