All the President’s Men (1976)
Release Date: April 9th, 1976 MPAA Rating: PG
Director: Alan J. Pakula Actors: Dustin Hoffman, Robert Redford, Jack Warden, Martin Balsam, Hal Holbrook, Jason Robards, Ned Beatty, Jane Alexander, Meredith Baxter, Penny Fuller
n June 1st, 1972, President Nixon arrives at the Capitol Plaza to address Congress in the chamber of the House of Representatives – as well as the people of the United States. A couple of weeks later, a report comes in of a possible burglary at the Watergate building, which spurs the issuing of a patrol car to investigate. Plain-clothed policemen discover five business-suited men lurking about in the Democratic National Committee Headquarters, each with walkie-talkies and sequential hundred-dollar bills. The situation is already suspicious, what with the political implications of such a break-in, paired with the fast appearance of lawyers for the accused – before they had a chance to make any phone calls – and the fact that all five suspects have aliases and might be linked to the CIA.
“Well I assure you, there’s nothing very mysterious involved.” Rookie writer Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) from the Washington Post is assigned to cover the story, which poses a simple but devastating question: Who is ultimately responsible for arranging for the bugging of the National Democratic Chairman? As Woodward makes a series of calls and collects some clues, the trail leads to novelist Howard Hunt at the White House, who used to work for the CIA, and then to Charles Colson, Special Counsel for the President. Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman), a more seasoned reporter, teams up with Bob to dig deeper, quickly unraveling a conspiracy with ties to the very top of the U.S. government.
The pacing is swift and the revelations are immediate. As the two Post investigators start with a series of phone calls and candid interviews, it rapidly becomes apparent that stories are changed, events are denied, confessions are given without provocation, and witnesses are tampered with. It’s a conspiracy to end all conspiracies, though mistakes are made to such staggering degrees that it’s only a matter of time before all the lies fall apart. And, of course, the most astounding acknowledgement is that this is based on actual events – so monumental that they would topple an administration and create a metonymy for political scandal and for a massive, far-reaching, clandestine operation (as well as the suffix “gate” for the national lexicon).
With the way “All the President’s Men” is shot and edited, there seems to be little exaggeration or hyperbole or sensationalism; it’s understated to allow for the happenings and the implications to grow more impactful on their own, essentially mimicking a documentary style of filmmaking. While the facts could have made for a James Bond-like thriller, the presentation is instead that of a newsroom procedural, with every event unfolding carefully, systematically, and without the over-the-top Hollywood standards of intensity – or even the loud, screeching violins that might be found in lesser pictures. Like the greatest of filmic mysteries, details are exhibited with precision to afford the audience the opportunity to learn and solve the case right alongside the journalists. And its unhurried divulgements generate a natural anticipation for bigger and bigger conclusions.
“Follow the money.” Amusingly, the politics in the media industry perpetually thwart tunneling to the considerably buried truth. The competition from the New York Times and other news companies is almost as big an opposition as the higher-ups in the Post, who don’t want to risk publishing a “dangerous” story without more than enough facts and sources. But both are piddling compared to the misplaced loyalties of the politicians and employees who are entrenched in the cover-up: ordinary people who want to help but are intimidated, surveilled, and threatened to keep quiet by a network of powerful, influential schemers.
On the acting front, Redford and Hoffman are in top form. Their deliveries and interactions are incredibly natural – almost as if improvised – boasting reverse psychology and tricky interrogations that are inherently steeped in humor, thanks to the accidental information leaked or gleaned from every little conversation. William Goldman’s script is sensational to match, overflowing with wordy dialogues as if an in-depth news report on the investigation – but with the inherent theatrical suspense surrounding the inevitable exposure of a crime committed by the highest of powers (the kind where corruption becomes the scariest). With its potent plot, sensational performances, and riveting screenplay, “All the President’s Men” is one of the greatest of all political thrillers, setting a benchmark against which a wealth of films after it would be measured.
– Mike Massie