Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): The Favorites - All the President's Men (#93)

Friday, August 21, 2015

The Favorites - All the President's Men (#93)


The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. All the President's Men (1976/USA/dir. Alan Pakula) appeared at #93 on my original list.

What it is • Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) - "Woodstein" as they're affectionately/condescendingly called by their Washington Post superiors - are onto something, and they know it even if no one else does. Then again, maybe they don't; they're hungry pros, keen for the kill, and it almost doesn't matter if the story they're chasing is a chimera or a genuine pot of gold. As it happens, it's the story of the century - a bungled break-in at Democratic headquarters in the foregone-conclusion '72 election which just happens to be a smoking gun with the President of the United States' finger on the trigger. Yet the true pleasures of their pursuit are to be found in the small details: the long wait in the secretary's office broken through by Bernstein's clever phone-in; the endless door-to-door rejections by intimidated witnesses, overcome when the duo finally asserts itself instead of letting frustration take over; the grudging, acerbic respect offered by their casually tuxedo-wearing socialite boss (Jason Robards) when the report they've broken their backs on just barely proves itself worthy of his attention. The film ends with the understated denouement of the decade - typed pronouncements of who was arraigned, arrested, sentenced, and imprisoned, climaxing with the resignation of Richard Nixon in August of 1974, several years after the enterprising reporters were first clued in to the Watergate burglary. Yet this cataclysmic climax is after-the-fact, and the real thrill is in the chase itself; the stakes and scale of the political scandal is just icing on the cake (albeit particularly tasty icing, especially as we draw closer to the conclusion and Hal Holbrook's enigmatic Deep Throat clarifies the risk they run). If ever a movie celebrated the pure thrill of hungry professionals on the hunt, it's All the President's Men.

Why I like it

The protagonists of this film are reporters, but they could theoretically belong to any profession which requires its practitioners to make their own luck and enjoy the risks they run and rejection they entail in the pursuit of success. I've had plenty of goal-oriented jobs, including sales, fundraising, and census enumeration, and as such can't help but glory in the affrontive chutzpah and endless curiosity of Woodward and Bernstein as they calmly force their way into living rooms or cajole inadvertent confessions out of phone conversations. But I saw this movie long before I'd held such jobs, and loved it just as much then, so my affection transcends personal identification. Put simply, Pakula's film is one of those stories that glories in the intricacies of work and it matters little how familiar one is with the particular profession - the details are so juicy that one's swept up regardless. There's also the thrill of the movie's perversely cinematic style: a movie based primarily on verbal exposition (artfully managed by William Goldman's glorious screenplay) nonetheless manages to cultivate such a moody, absorbing visual atmosphere - Gordon Willis' evocative cinematography, Robert Wolfe's subtly enticing montage, and George Jenkins' endlessly naturalistic and thus fascinating production design create an all-encompassing onscreen world which draws its power from the suggestion of a dark, detailed universe extending beyond the frame. I don't know exactly what director Alan Pakula was on to in the mid- to late-seventies but he created some of the most alluring thrillers of all time and he remains underrated to this day. Ultimately, all I can say is this: put All the President's Men on during a quiet afternoon or unoccupied evening and I defy you to turn it off. There are few films more absorbing in the history of the medium.

How you can see itAll the President's Men is available on DVD from Netflix.

What do you think? • Is All the President's Men the best thriller of the seventies? Does its power rely in large part on the draw of the Watergate scandal? Can Hollywood still make a film as relevant and timely as it could in '76 (this film came out less than two years after Nixon resigned)? Do the clearly-influenced political/contemporary thrillers of the 00s and 10s - including the obviously admiring Aaron Sorkin's series and films - live up to this film's legacy? Do we need to identify with Woodward/Bernstein's moral position to enjoy their hunt? Do you relate to/sympathize with the duo's methods and drive? Can you think of other films that so deftly couple a brilliant screenplay with such an assured visual style - or do you disagree with that approach? While it's not actually included in the film (having been revealed long after the Post struck gold with its initially quixotic Watergate quest), what do you think those missing 18 minutes of Nixon's tape concealed?

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Two years ago: Death by Hanging (#94)
Next week: Emak-Bakia (#92)

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