Alan J. Pakula’s All The President’s Men is a triumph of technique and pacing, and less of a storytelling gem. Its characters are easy to follow and understand, but the case they’re working on isn’t. It’s full of names and addresses and positions and who’s covering up for whom. If you don’t already know the key players in the Watergate scandal, you will find it difficult to keep track of who anybody really is.
The only characters who are familiar are the ones played by Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford, because they make it so. Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward of The Washington Post — known collectively in this film as Woodstein — are a couple of hard-edged determined reporters who sniff out drops of blood and move in for the kill. The drop this time is a break-in at the Democratic National Committee of the Watergate complex. Five hispanic men are caught and tried, and when a lawyer turns up at the hearing without being called for, the case quickly escalates into something of a whodunnit mystery.
The structure of this plot is similar to the plot of Chinatown. We as the audience are never ahead of our heroes. We discover lies and truths about the case just as they do. The villain in Chinatown was faceless until the very end. Since we already know the villains in this movie, Pakula does the smart thing by keeping them faceless throughout, with brief moments of relief as they make sporadic TV appearances. But they’re never active in the proceedings. Every time Woodstein advances, we wonder if the Nixon administration takes a step backwards into shadow.
The Watergate scandal, as far as I can gather, was a bold but failed attempt by the Nixon people to cover up espionage activity involving the Committee break-in. The government installed illegal bugs and wiretaps as a way of keeping an eye on its opposition, or on anyone it deemed threatening. This, of course, is what I am picking up from All The President’s Men. I could research the scandal with more detail. But why should I? I take what the movie gives me. If the information the movie provides leads to a false understanding, I believe the story has not done its job.
And in many ways, it hasn’t. There are a lot of phone calls in this movie. Many of them are to different people, some are to the same. Names are thrown around The Washington Post like frisbees. Before we get a chance to familiarise ourselves with one, another is mentioned, and Woodstein responds with the fervour of a bloodhound. It’s as if they are our guides through a labyrinth, and when they see a light at the end, they charge for it and leave us behind with no way to get out.
What makes this story interesting is not so much the story behind the story, but the energy that rides through Hoffman and Redford. They are good journalists. Hoffman is the veteran. Redford the rookie. We are glued to their professional lives. We know nothing of their time away from the office. We don’t see them eating bagels at a streetside café, or slouched on their couches in front of the TV. We don’t even know if they have families. The movie shows us how they work, and how they work gives us the movie.
From a technical standpoint All The President’s Men is superior. Pakula and editor Robert L. Wolfe do a fine job of creating tension and excitement out of mundane events. When Bernstein and Woodward interrogate reluctant leads over the phone, the atmosphere has a touch of anticipation about it, almost as if each phone call may or may not summon a nuclear strike. Their job is so repetitive, so bogged down by door-knocks and hasty questions, that a nuclear strike might have proven useful.
Alas, the screenplay is bursting at the seams with too many names to remember, too many coverups from people who are intended to matter to the plot but inevitably fade away, and too much reliance on its audience’s pre-existing knowledge of the scandal that forced Nixon to resign. Bernstein and Woodward are good characters. They deserve this movie. The way they go about their work is invigorating and precise. They carry a story many people already know, so there’s not much else to do with them except to play them straight.
I give this movie 4 stars because in spite of its lack of clarity, it illustrates very well the need for honest journalism. Like I said at the beginning, it is a triumph of technique and pacing. Much like the work of Bernstein and Woodward.
Best Moment | The scene where all of The Washington Post’s chief editors and heads of department discuss what is to become news and what is to become trash. I also enjoyed many of Woodstein’s conversations with unwilling leads, and how they continued to probe despite heavy opposition.
Worst Moment | Nope.