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Alan J. Pakula’s All The President’s Men pulled back the curtain on the investigative team that uncovered the Watergate conspiracy, bringing journalists like Robert Woodward, Carl Bernstein and Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee to the silver screen. Days before it hit theaters on April 9, 1976, The Hollywood Reporter reviewed the film:
The number of American films dealing with political subjects can literally be counted on the fingers on one hand; and up until Warner Bros.’ All the President’s Men, the number of pictures that deal factually and realistically with the machinery and machinations of American politics was strictly zero.
It isn’t difficult to understand why the studios have tended to shy away from this subject. Politics may make strange bedfellows, but it is even more sharply divisive — as we are reminded every four years.
If half the voting population of the country stays away from a political movie because they don’t approve of its politics, that movie is in trouble.
All of this actor-writer-producer Robert Redford must have been aware of when he bought the rights to the Robert Woodward-Carl Bernstein book for a hefty $450,000. And Warners when they budgeted the production at $5 million. (They were probably even more keenly aware of it as they watched the costs increase to a reported $8.5 million which even in these inflationary times is considerable.)
My guess is that all of them were backing at least as much upon the legendary drawing power of Redford and Dustin Hoffman as they were upon the public’s sustained interest in the Watergate mess.
Just how right they were remains to be seen. $8.5 million is a hard nut to crack. But one can only admire the gutsiness of this whole operation. Not only does it name increasingly important names as the circle of guilt widened beyond the five bumbling burglars of the original break-in right up to the oval office itself; it doesn’t stint on any aspect of production that might bring this story to the screen with the same professionalism that went into the original book.
Much has already been written on the authenticity of Warners‘ $450,000 replica of the Washington Post‘s newsroom — right down to flying out authentic refuse from the Post‘s own newsroom waste baskets. No less remarkable is the film’s insistence on actual locales (including Watergate) wherever possible and the look-alike costing of so many of the key roles.
Admiration extends beyond mere surface appearances, however. Under Alan J. Pakula’s searching direction, the cast avoids most movie news-hound stereotypes, underlining instead the doubts and misgivings of the Post‘s upper editorial echelons as the implications of Watergate begin to unfold and the patient, dogged legwork of the Post‘s two investigative reports as they track down those individuals who, however reluctantly, might be able to supply another name or another fact.
It’s like building a giant jigsaw puzzle, with the added frustration of first having to find the pieces before trying to find where they fit in the overall picture.
While there’s an undoubted fascination in all this — the sense of fear surrounding those willing to talk as well as those who slam the door in their faces, the commingling of duty and disillusion on the part of so many of their informants, the cloak-and-dagger atmosphere surrounding the shadowy “Deep Throat,” who would merely confirm or deny Woodward’s conclusions — after a couple of hours it begins to wear thin.
You want the newsmen themselves, the protagonists in this film, to be in some sort of jeopardy. Apparently William Goldman, the screenwriter, sensed this too, for it’s just about then that he throws in a sequence in which Redford, alone on Washington’s dark, deserted streets, begins to run for his life. But from What? The threat never materializes, and the scene leaves us wanting either less or more.
Again, one has the impression that Goldman realized you can push a good thing just so far, or that audiences will follow reportorial plotting just so long. After the implication of John Mitchell in the conspiratorial circle, the film cuts abruptly to a teletype machine that taps out the ultimate disclosures leading up to Richard M. Nixon. I am afraid that those come more as a relief than an expurgation.
On purely the production level, however, All the President’s Men can hardly be faulted. Redford and Hoffman are pungent but self-effacing as Woodward and Bernstein; Jason Robards turns in a powerful impersonation of executive editor Ben Bradlee; and Martin Balsam and Jack Warden carry conviction as subsidiary editors. Hal Holbrook, always lurking in the shadows, is an effective “Deep Throat,” the informer who won’t inform. But the truly memorable performance is Jane Alexander’s too brief appearances as a minor bookkeeper whose revulsion at the Watergate disclosures impels to tell all she knows. In a way, she is the voice of all of us whose moral sensibility was shocked by the Watergate revelations, and for whom the sanctity of high office can never again mean the same. —Arthur Knight
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