By Philip Newton (England)
In the 1970’s America was dealing with two pivotal events in their countries history, events which would lead the country into a state of apathy and disillusionment over how they felt about their government. These were firstly the Vietnam War and the second being Watergate a word that will be forever tied to a bodged illegal bugging attempt at the democratic headquarters in 1972. What became the story are the events that lead after, when in 1976 Alan J.
Pakula released All The President’s Men starring Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford as two real life Washington Post journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein who while investigating this suspicious break in back in 1972 managed to trace a conspiracy which lead the burglars all the way to the White House and president Richard Nixon. All the President’s Men was the story which almost cost them their careers and at times maybe their lives.
The first thing to admire about the film is its taut pacing, Pakula constantly keeps the audience with the story wherever it may be headed, which is even more amazing seeing as this mostly involves characters on phones or scribbling notes while interviewing sources. It never becomes laboured or tired however; on the contrary it is an all-out thriller with the whole affair keeping us dangling in a gripping state of unease. I admired the way Pakula did not force contrived moments of tension that were unnatural or purposely ostentatious, he decides that every moment should feel natural and organic with a scenes tension coming out of the genuine results of what’s at stake.
Scenes linger, for example the many phone conversations have many hesitant pauses with the prickly voices on the phone sparsely divulging information and either Redford or Hoffman’s facial expression desperately showing a need for a breakthrough. It surprisingly works, the interview scenes likewise have a similar feel of uncertainty in how they develop with a huge revelation being suddenly implemented into the proceedings with no real exposition surrounding it.
The audience becomes a part of the discovery with Pakula forcing us to think and piece all the elements together. We begin to understand what is unravelling much like the journalists themselves because the film does not signpost everything, we, much like them, have to do the leg work and from this I believe creates a much more engaging cinematic experience rather than a standard conspiracy thriller which is all bells and whistles but has no enduring or long lasting payoff.
Visually Pakula and cinematographer Gordon Willis create a natural authenticity to the film which help create the genuine inner workings of a newspaper room, we see many wide open frames panning around as workers scatter around the room, the two lead characters fit perfectly into this milieu and are not isolated as stars they are one with the environment and their coworkers making much more believable scenes. Likewise team meetings almost feel improvised, the camera much of the time in midshot as the characters report what makes the headlines is intriguing further adding to the genuine feel that the film has. T
he most impressive visual technique employed is its frequent use of deep focus throughout, scenes will often involve for example a television reporting Nixon’s actions such as his inauguration in the foreground with the reporters working in the background all in focus. Scenes like this help establish the crucial part played by both the real media coverage and the men working to bring it down all in one scene, neither one takes president they both hold an important role to play.
Performance wise, both Redford and Hoffman are very effective in their respective roles with both not trying to elevate their position as stars or overshadow the other, we completely believe them as these journalists in amongst the newsroom where you almost forget of them as Hoffman and Redford as they become Woodford and Bernstein. This is a credit to them as it could have been easy to play up their role and for both to compete to try and steal scenes. They both however appear committed to the project realising that it was these men that were important and their efforts rather than their own individual star power and presence.
This idea also followed through to the supporting cast with actors such as Jason Robards and Jack Warden of the executive team being convincing news men trying to steer the rookies in the right direction and a pivotal role for Hal Holbrook as anonymous source Deep Throat. Hal pitches this role just right, we don’t hate him or really like him, we are not sure what to think of him, he has to be neutral, a man of the shadows revealing the true dark and despairing reality of the White House.
Finally I read other reviews of the film criticising it of lacking narrative drive or having any real dramatic weight, that it was too concerned with the details and that the audience would lose interest in the mundane nature of the journalism. Well being a member of the audience I have to disagree with this in my recommendation of the film as Pakula could have made a film which was more dramatic and had characterisation which showed more of the characters personal lives and decisions, but that was not what I think he was intending. Pakula wanted to make an expose on power and corruption, and how all the intricacies of small interruptions, pauses and slip-ups can be the real turnaround in bringing down a government.
There are small moments of poignancy between characters such as Jason Robards as executive editor Ben Bradlee saying how he once messed up but was right, and how he has to place trust in his team. There is always a feel throughout that he trusts the instincts of his guys because they have the same instincts that he has, and that is what the film is about that power can be taken and overthrown, all you need is good instincts and perseverance.