Top Fifty Films of the 70s — Number Eight

presidentsmen

#8 — All the President’s Men (Alan J. Pakula, 1976)
All the President’s Men was released into theaters in the first week of April, 1976, less than two years after Richard Nixon’s resignation from the Office of the President of the United States on August 9, 1974. That’s astounding to me, that this film arrived when the emotions of the Watergate scandal were still so raw, the betrayal presided over by the person holding the highest elected post in the land still ringing like the shrill scream’s echo that just won’t fade. With a screenplay by William Goldman and expert, firmly patient directing by Alan J. Pakula, the film is unapologetically detail-oriented and low on manufactured drama. There’s the occasional fraught moment as the crack investigative reporters pursuing the case are concerned about their personal safety, but the vast majority of the film is about little more than the dogged pursuit of the truth. It is about phone calls and interviews, asking the right questions and sifting through the reluctant answers to find that sliver of revelation that will open a new door. It is about journalism as it was once practiced, when few things could do more damage, especially to a political figure, than a damning headline backed up by irrefutable facts on the front page of a major newspaper’s morning edition.

Tracking the progress of Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein (Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, respectively) as they try to get to the bottom of this odd little burglary in the Watergate Hotel, unearthing more and more government corruption in the process, the film is meticulous and relentlessly intelligent. There are no grand revelations shouted out in the middle of an interrogation, but forward progress comes instead from the admissions of people who have grown weary of the secrets they’ve been burdened to carry. Part of the beauty of the film is the way it shows how theory can transform into certainty, sometimes after careful rerouting. Even then, the burden of making the story absolutely unassailable is only beginning. As Post executive editor Ben Bradlee calmly but firmly notes as the paper is working on a lead that will change the trajectory of the story, “Now hold it, hold it. We’re about to accuse Haldeman, who only happens to be the second most important man in this country, of conducting a criminal conspiracy from inside the White House. It would be nice if we were right.”

Bradlee is played by Jason Robards in a performance that won him the first of two consecutive Oscars, and he’s flat-out terrific, albeit in a way that seems apart from commonplace award fodder. The character is fully lived-in. Robards doesn’t play Bradlee as a crusader, but instead as a guy running a paper, a man doing a job. Maybe it’s a job with the highest of stakes, but it’s still first and foremost a job. That’s the prevailing spirit of the entire film. The history of the nation was being made in a way that left massive wounds on the society’s trust in authority, but there’s nothing pious about the film, nothing that overtly signals its heady importance. Pakula is measured and sober in his approach, perhaps because the production was mounted while the actual events were still a fairly fresh memory or, it’s entirely possible, for no other reason than that’s how Pakula made movies. Regardless, it’s the exact right approach, managing to make the simple yet profound act of diligent perseverance into incredible engrossing cinema.

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