Friday, 15 July 2011

All the President's Men (1976)

THE MOST DEVASTATING DETECTIVE STORY OF THIS CENTURY.

Journalism. Freedom of speech. The search for the Truth in a sea of ambiguities, doubts and “non-denial denials.” In the early part of the 1970s, two Washington Post reporters began an investigation into a seemingly rather innocuous event and ended up lifting the lid on a conspiracy which eventually led to the resignation in disgrace of President Richard Nixon just two years later. Facing an incredible uphill struggle, the reporters Woodward and Bernstein forged through the morass of dead-ends, evasions and rejections and, placing the reputations of themselves and their paper at stake, fought to get the story told. It’s the stuff political thrillers are made of and, in 1976, the tale was told in All the President’s Men.

In the run-up to the 1972 US elections, Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) covers what seemed to be a minor break-in at the Democratic Party National headquarters at the Watergate. When he finds top lawyers on the defence case, and the names of Republican fund organisers amongst the accused, he teams up with Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) to follow the trail of evidence behind the break-in higher into the Republican Party and the White House itself.

Woodward and Bernstein wrote the book from which the story was adapted, so it was rich in the detail of the graft of journalism and the manner in which they conducted their investigation. William Goldman was the one who adapted the story and it is a superb script. It captures the characters of Woodward and Goldstein and the people they worked with, the heavy dramatic weight of the subject matter and the great complexity of the story. Every scene is solid as drama and small touches that are included bring a superb level of detail to the whole affair, like the initial lack of trust in Woodward’s abilities given his relative rookie status at the paper, or the near chaotic round table discussions of the paper’s various editors, or even the fact that someone Woodward speaks to mentions that his neighbour’s wife was kidnapped. That actually happened. Both reporters are evoked superbly. Though they are both possessed of the same dogged relentless thirst for the truth, their styles vary. Bernstein will keep notes on anything he can get his hands on, so his pockets are stuffed with napkins and matchbooks and strips of toilet paper, and he is a little more prone to trickery; Woodward is more straight-lined, but no less tenacious. The film itself only covers a certain amount of the book, since to cover more would involve a film of several hours. Honestly, to some degree, I don’t think I would have minded much.

Alan J. Pakula’s direction is so visually suggestive that there doesn’t need to be any dramatic speeches about the overwhelming nature of the ever faceless enemy, or for anyone to explain the nature of journalistic responsibility. It’s all rendered in the visuals and the sounds of the world Pakula creates. He shows two vastly contrasting worlds in the film: one of dark (the shady political side); and one of light (the one of journalism). Suspicious deals and murky meetings are submerged in darkness, whereas the reporters exist in a world of full light, where nothing can be hidden. Gordon Willis’ cinematography is so adept at identifying the two opposing sides that, when Woodward and Bernstein are knocking on doors, you can tell who will talk by how much light they live in. The framing of the film is absolutely impeccable, too. When Woodward and Bernstein leave government buildings or drive by them, they appear miniscule in comparison, elegantly underlining that theirs is a monumental task against a huge opponent. The office of the Washington Post is also superbly realised, so bright and open, and it’s all kept in such focus that you can see everything going on around our protagonists. Even inside offices, the doors are open and the windows show the office buzzing behind. Once again, in this place, nothing is hidden. And it’s all kept up with such bustle. There’s no sitting around from these people. They move, they interact, they gather and disperse. Pakula has done a great job with them.

The editing and sense of pace in the film are also excellent. Some shots are held for so long that, at times, it becomes unbearably tense. There is a shot where Woodward is on the phone to Dahlberg, delicately trying to get information from him, though Dahlberg is clearly very nervous about this. It begins as a wide shot, taking in all the activity of the office, but slowly moves in on Woodward as he pushed Dahlberg. It’s all dialogue. That shot lasts for about six solid minutes and runs in a single unedited take. A later one has Bernstein on the phone to another source and in it he counts to ten. That’s it, but it is the most tense ten count outside of a boxing ring. It’s then immediately followed by a single shot tracking shot of Bernstein as he runs through across the newsroom and into the foyer. Good lord, it’s brilliant.

The sound plays such a huge part in the film, too. Listen to the busy newspaper office, the crowded and noisy streets, the eerily quiet government offices. This is a city that’s alive. Even points where we lose our pair in the crowd of a restaurant or the whole city, we never lose their voice. Not just in terms of the filmmaking, but in terms of the story, theirs is the voice we can’t lose. Even if we don’t see them, we need to know that they are out there. There’s also a great emphasis put on the strikes of a typewriter. When the film opens with the hammer of a typewriter falling on the page, they sound more like gunshots. These words are as much weapons as guns. The final shot, a wonderfully framed juxtaposition of the Presidential inauguration and the unremitting reporters at work, brings this idea of guns versus words together with great power and simplicity.

The whole cast is first-rate. Hoffman and Redford work so very well together. Two very controlled performances from two fine actors, and they play such a great game of give-and-take with each other. The pair actually learned each other’s lines so that they could jump in on the other, finish each other’s sentences. It feels like a real partnership between the two. Individually, they hold up really well, too. Just watch how uncomfortable Redford seems to be in the dark of the parking garage meetings. He’s someone who’s not used to being so enveloped like this. It’s not fear, so much as unease, uncertainty. Hoffman has the slightly showier role, but only so very slightly. You can see the excitable tremor he gets when he’s on to something, but he never lets it get the better of him. Also, in the scene where he speaks with Jane Alexander (who is also superb in her understatement), you can see him treading so carefully as he questions her. He needs the answers, but doesn’t want to scare her off. It’s great dexterity on his part. Jason Robards is solid as a rock as the bullshit-free editor Ben Bradlee. He’s the steady reign on the two, giving them enough that they can investigate, but controlled enough that he doesn’t let the thrill of the chase throw him off. He’s a hardass, to them more than anyone, but he knows what he’s doing.

Did you know that All the President’s Men is often shown to journalism students? It’s true. The reason being that, aside from being a damn good film, it espouses a certain idea of what it means to be a journalist, particularly one in America. Despite the story taking place in one of the shadiest conspiracies of the last 50 years, the film is actually quite idealistic. I mentioned earlier about the contrast between light and dark so brilliantly captured by Gordon Willis. This is something Pakula extends to certain landmarks to be found in Washington, D.C. At night, places like the White House, the Washington Monument, and the Lincoln Memorial are lit up at night as a resolute symbol of the Good shining in the Dark. Pakula brings these monuments into the frame of his film regularly. Despite where the evidence seems to be taking them, these reporters are not out to take down the government; they’re out to defend it. They’re out to uphold the principles of the Truth, Justice and the American Way. It sounds incredibly corny, but it’s quite sincere and not in the least bit flag-waving. In fact, I’m not sure if I can remember seeing a single American flag once in the entire film. The connection is being made, though. Those that hang around in dark, shady rooms are the ones who are in opposition to the ideals of America. Woodward and Bernstein work in the light, which makes them more in line with what the country wants to be.

My reviewing this film is actually rather timely, considering the current state of journalistic affairs. For those of you not aware, or who may be reading this way down the timeline, a mere five days prior to the time of writing, the British tabloid newspaper, the News of the World, produced its final issue before being closed down by its owner Rupert Murdoch amid allegations of phone hacking, corruption and cover-ups by senior executives. Reporters and administrators from the News of the World have been accused of illegally hacking into voicemail services of numerous people, from the Royal Family and politicians to the more unsettling instances of hacking into the voicemails of murder victims and the families of dead soldiers. The outrage over this ordeal forced the paper to be shut down, those accused to be arrested and a public government enquiry being set up to investigate the matter further. It also put a complete halt on the attempt made by Murdoch’s News Corporation to take over BSkyB, first by executive decision, then by government mandate. Claims have also been made that the News of the World is unlikely to be the only newspaper to engage in such activities.

It’s a hell of a thing, isn’t it? In All the President’s Men, an ideal is put forth about journalism, its importance in the search for facts, for truth, for justice. That good, honest and solid investigative journalism into a story are one of the strongest and most important tools a society can have. Around 40 years later, the very world of journalism is shaken to its core by the disquieting actions of certainly a few, perhaps even many of its number. How can it be possible to trust in those who claim to report for the greater good when the manner in which they obtain their facts is as underhanded and occasionally sickening as the ones they seek to expose? What story are they trying to tell that could warrant this? Freedom of speech is probably the most guarded right that Americans hold (it’s their First Amendment, for God’s sake) and it certainly holds equally true to others who have it. However, with that power comes the grave responsibility of knowing how and when to use it. When you speak without thinking, without considering consequence, without caring how you say something, you devalue not only your own words, but the very system that allows you to speak them in the first place. Freedom to speak is a right, but it should be treated as a privilege. In the end, it’s your job to police yourself, not someone else’s. If this means taking an extra minute or two to think about what you’re going to say, then so be it. This is the idealism that exists at the heart of All the President’s Men. Woodward and Bernstein know they must speak, but do everything in their power to make sure they're ready before they do. Words are not meaningless or inert; words are powerful. Words have impact. Whether used properly or improperly, words can do more damage than people are really willing to admit. As corny as it may seem, sometimes the pen really is mightier than the sword.

All the President’s Men is an absolutely superb thriller, made stronger and more sinister by the fact that it’s all true. The direction is outstanding, as is the script, the editing, the sound and the cinematography. Redford and Hoffman are also on top form as the intrepid pair of journalists fighting for truth. More than just an excellent film, though, it’s got ideals and hope, without coming across as being naive.

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