Wednesday, September 30, 2009

1976 - All the President's Men

After over a month of inspiration from the films taking part in this project, last night the torch was passed over to the theatre world. I had the pleasure of seeing God of Carnage on Broadway. A wonderful experience and I highly recommend it. It stars Jeff Daniels, Hope Davis, James Gandolfini and Marcia Gay Harden - what a cast, right? And not that I want to ruin it for anyone, but I feel compelled to mention that the play includes a very realistic vomiting scene. But don't let that put you off. It's not all about vomit.

Today, the torch was passed back to filmdom when I watched the next 1976 Best Picture nominee...

All the President's Men
Alan J. Pakula
William Goldman
(based on the book by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein)
Dustin Hoffman, Robert Redford, Jack Warden, Martin Balsam, Hal Holbrook, Jason Robards, Jane Alexander
Academy Awards:
8 nominations
4 wins, including Best Supporting Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay

More a detective story than a journalist's tale, All the President's Men follows what may well be the most famous account of investigative journalism in history. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein are reporters for the Washington Post who all but beg to be assigned to cover the aftermath of the break-in at the Watergate hotel. They follow the intricate trail wherever it leads with the assistance of Woodward's secret source on the inside, unkindly nicknamed Deep Throat. The determined pair wind up uncovering a massive conspiracy of political sabotage that reaches higher than even they imagined.

I imagine that, since this film was released so soon after the actual events occurred, audiences of that time must have felt a closer affinity to the subject matter. However, even watching it more than thirty years on and having seen it several times before, it still remains as riveting as ever. And what's most fascinating is that it achieves this in such a subtle manner. There are no action scenes or special effects, just good old fashioned drama. Granted, if you know all the details of the Watergate scandal, you may find the mystery a little less ... well, mysterious. But you would have to know all the details, because the trail that Woodward and Bernstein follow in the course of the story is pretty darn complex. So much so that you really can't afford to let your mind wander for a second or you might get lost.

The pace of the film is a little difficult to describe. Since there are no car chases or fight sequences, you could be forgiven for thinking it slow, but the story is constantly zooming forward as our heroes go from lead to lead that it's almost akin to an action movie. It's as if the film is slow and fast at the same time. Quite a sensation. All the while, it keeps a strong hold of your attention. Similar to Taxi Driver, All the President's Men includes some can't-look-away moments, but for completely different reasons. Rather than being mesmerised by a fascinating character, here we are drawn to the incredible story unravelling in front of us. One scene presents Woodward on the phone attempting to get a source to confirm some incriminating information. Sounds basic enough, but the camera remains on him for several minutes throughout the tense call, never cutting away.

That intensity is heightened by the cleverly sparing use of music throughout the film. In certain scenes, the score gives way to the natural sounds of the environment, which most often is the tapping of typewriter keys, a noise that just sounds like something important is going on. And when the score is heard, it is so magnificently ominous.

As if William Goldman's script wasn't wonderfully subtle enough, the general performance style of the cast in this film is divine. Every single actor, from the two leads right down to the bit parts, produces an amazingly natural and improvisational tone. Jason Robards as the Post's executive editor Ben Bradlee is particularly impressive and I guess Academy members thought so, too, because they gave him the first of his back-to-back Oscars for it.

There is also an array of not-yet-known celebrities in tiny roles - F. Murray Abraham as one of the cops who was first on the scene of the break-in, 7th Heaven's Stephen Collins as the only seemingly honest man caught up in the fiasco, Family Ties' Meredith Baxter as the wife of that honest man. And Junior Soprano himself, Dominic Chianese, shows up at the beginning of the film as one of the Watergate burglars.

So, just one more to go in the 1976 contest...


  1. Sometimes, at work, I just type a whole heap of gobbledygook, hoping it sounds like I am busy. Matt, you have just validated my existence in this office. Thanks mate.

  2. What an accomplishment from Director Alan J. Pakula! He did fine work with "Klute," "The Parallax View" and "Sophie's Choice," but "All the President's Men" was his crowning achievement. To take a complex story with a laundry list of names, an outcome that is already known, and keep it engrossing throughout takes skill at all levels of production. "Apollo 13" did this as well, but had some great special effects to help out. This is nuts and bolts stuff, but fascinating nonetheless. I also liked that its focus was on the investigation throughout. There wasn't any fat, no personal story lines to muddle the plot and slow the momentum. Kudos to the casting director as well - just excellent, down to the smallest part.

  3. The Parallax View is one of my favourites. Another beautifully subtle film. You really get the opportunity to figure things out on your own, without music telling you what to feel, or special effects. The frame just tells you everything you need to know. I love it.

  4. Oh,yeah, "The Parallax View." That slide show indoctrination scene was truly unsettling. I read somewhere that the "dirty tricks" and cover ups of Nixon's inner circle help lead to the public becoming more and more paranoid and disenchanted with the political process. Cinematically, this led to the noirish political and corporate thrillers such as "The Conversation," "The Parallax View" and "Three Days of the Condor" (three of my favorites) - and of course "All the President's Men." I think this ushered in the era of neo-noir with "Taxi Driver" at the starting gate, and "Body Heat" waiting in the wings, a few years down the road.