Directed By: Alan J. Pakula
Written By: William Goldman (based on the book All the President’s Men by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward)
Starring: Robert Redford, Dustin Hoffman, Jack Warden, Hal Holbrook, Jason Robards
There’s a scene in All the President’s Men which lasts five minutes, contains four phone calls and is recorded in one take. It’s a moment which speaks to what makes Alan J. Pakula’s true to fact political thriller so affecting. It’s a scene of piano string tension which refuses to blink, its drawn out take the visual equivalent of one holding their breath. It gives us no reprieve as the plucky journalist Bob Woodward pivots between callers, sensing he’s on the cusp of a revelation as he surely begins to put one foot in front of the other. And when did that camera get in so tight to Bob’s features? It slithered in, ever so gradually, from a medium shot to an extreme close up, just as we slowly lean forward in our chairs watching it. The fact that the camera is moving goes over our heads because it seems so natural, so befitting of the mounting excitement.
It’s this brand of theatrical flair which makes every minor moment of progress so dramatic in All the President’s Men, where something as simple as ascertaining a name or receiving a nod of the head could set in motion a chain of events that has the weight to send America into disarray. It makes us covet every fact, it charges every second of the journalistic process with significance. The scene in question, as many scenes in the film do, risks being overwhelmed with information, it’s confusing even for Bob who crosses the names of his callers, but it remains so completely thrilling because the film has installed in us an appreciation of our heroes and the fight required for even an inch of forward movement.
The action in the film amounts to little more than ink being scratched into paper and discussions of committee funds between reporters and government officials, but All the President’s Men is never dry, never less than utterly absorbing. It’s the story of two crusaders working for The Washington Post, a new comer Bob Woodward (Robert Redford), and a cutthroat veteran Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman), who together dig into the Watergate break-ins and soon discover that whatever happened at the Democratic National Committee headquarters was far from a routine burglary. Of course the scandal was foul play from America’s most important men, perhaps the pivotal moment in America’s cancerous disillusionment which had become such a focal point for so many films in the preceding years.
William Goldman’s screenplay is one of extreme density, an endless spewing of names and locations and minute specifics, but it’s dense to a fastidious end, not a tiring one. It’s this amazing appreciation for detail that aligns us so tightly to our two investigators. We are with them for every forward step and backwards step, swimming in disparate information, begging for a rope as Woodstein (their adopted team name) themselves tread to keep their heads above water. We are so enveloped in their journey, so tremendously synchronised with them, that we almost forget where it is that the scandal, one of the most well known in history, is headed.
So much of the tension stems from the fact that Pakula and Goldman never do offer us a line. The film never leaves its circle of phone calls, note taking and interviews. We’re never given a chance to see Woodward and Bernstein operate in their personal lives, their existence is instead constricted to the investigation. We only get to know them through subtle characterisations, like the chain smoking, coffee slurping Bernstein’s hair which slowly grows out sideways as the case wears on; like Woodward’s increasingly sloppy apartment which was a mess to begin with; through Woodward’s relenting on interviewees while Bernstein wants to take no prisoners, as though to keep their morality in check as they stumble into increasingly immoral territory.
There’s also a spookiness to the film, a spookiness at times painted with sub horror strokes that stray from realism. Woodstein are delving into an abyss, tackling a force which omnipotently presides over their every move like an Orwellian nightmare. The shadow enclosed Deep Throat (Hal Holbrook), the famed inside man who meets with Woodward in blackened car parks to nudge him in the right direction, registers like a Poe creation, a noir inflected ethereal presence who warns of danger and vanishes into darkness. Another element of what makes All the President’s Men so thrilling is the fact that all men are the President’s, a notion captured in Pakula’s reoccurring pull back of his camera into a distant bird’s eye view, reducing the journalists to specks in a Washington labyrinth that consumes them. They’re waging a war against a dangerous, evil force which has them surrounded, a truly scary proposition.
It all makes us appreciate the tenacity of our battlers. In the end All the President’s Men is most effective as a taut love letter to the tireless work of two men who never gave up on the truth. What Pakula and Goldman offer us are two working stiff heroes with an insatiable hunger, who like the filmmakers themselves, never underestimated the power of the smallest detail. It’s a portrait which brings clarity to the near impossibility of dredging up morality in a changed America, and it brings clarity to the amazing bravery required for the task.