By Marc S. Sanders
People talk too much.
Ten minutes into Alan J Pakula’s film, that’s all I can think about. William Goldman’s dialogue heavy script pounds away at depicting Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward’s uncovering of the Watergate break in, and it shows that simply, people talk too much. So much so that just a stutter or a name in passing conversation will dig the hole deeper and deeper towards self-incrimination, and that of other accomplices. Once a source trips up, then a good reporter can pounce.
Names, dates, slamming doors, rotary phones, typewriters and papers fly fast and furiously during Pakula’s film and that’s what upholds the breakneck pace of the investigative journalism. In a film like this, a crime is depicted and investigated, only the words are the real weapons.
I don’t find All The President’s Men to be a history lesson in the corruption of Nixon’s administration. Rather, I only see what was necessary for Woodward & Bernstein to truthfully prove the corruption took place. The reporters, played by Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, seem to run on endless adrenaline of coffee, cigarettes and fast food effectively showing their drive while donning loose ties, wrinkled shirts, and crumpled notepads amid unkept desks and apartments. It’s visually convincing. A story like this doesn’t sleep, nor does it take a vacation. A story like this makes a viewer feel like he/she is still up at 2am, catching a cab to meet a shadowy source in a haunting parking garage; thanks Hal Holbrook for Deep Throat (“Follow the money.”).
Redford has a great scene where Pakula never stops running the camera on close up for over six minutes. All that Redford is doing is dialing, and talking on the phone while maintaining two different conversations. I don’t know if this moment happened in real life but I imagine the best reporters in a pre internet phase had to hold out for opportune times like this to fall into their laps. The cut does not end and Pakula was instinctively wise to do that. The scene itself serves that harrowing pace. Less is more in a moment like this. Props to Redford for maintaining the statuesque momentum.
Equally so, Hoffman has a couple of good moments with Jane Alexander (his eventual costar in Kramer vs Kramer.). She beautifully depicts a victim of intimidating threat, and Hoffman must tread carefully with his questions by strategically letting himself into her home, puffing on a cigarette, sipping cold coffee, speaking softly and eventually getting out his notepad as she gradually breaks down her shell. Alexander doesn’t make it easy and so their scenes work so well in taut suspense of low whispers.
Nixon’s cohorts really are not the antagonists here. In essence, Goldman’s script (based on the reporters’ published book) welcomes the challenge of acquiring factual reporting as the overall conflict. This is best represented by Jason Robards’ portrayal of Post Editor Ben Bradlee. Robards won an Oscar, and he so deserved it. He wouldn’t give “Woodstein” a break until the truth willed itself out by the proper means that are necessary. He’s intimidating in the role but he’s open minded enough to not ignore the young reporters’ instincts. I love watching his scenes; the way he commands an office from a chair with his feet up or fidgets and writes with his red pen. When his boys finally get a solid piece, Bradlee’s character breaks for one moment to knock on a desk and clap his hands as he walks away from his men. They got it. He didn’t relent, and they finally got it. I love that moment. Simply marvelous.
All The President’s Men remains a favorite film of mine. The dialogue moves so fast that after seeing it a number of times I still haven’t connected all the dots, and yet that’s what I appreciate about it. I see something new every time.