Tuesday, December 28, 2010

All the President's Men joins all the worthy movies in the National Film Registry

In the interest of full disclosure, I must admit at the outset that I was a journalism major in college –- Loyola University in New Orleans, where my mentor was the late, great Tom Bell -- during the tragicomic sideshow of Watergate. So my view of Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein as true-blue American heroes – as fearless and relentless seekers of truth who helped to bring down the most corrupt President in U.S. history – is, perhaps, a bit skewed.

But trust me: That isn’t the only reason why I consider Alan J. Pakula’s All the President’s Men to be first among equals in the batch of movies announced today as this year’s selections for preservation by the Library of Congress in the National Film Registry.

The simple fact is, just as Woodward and Bernstein (collectively nicknamed Woodstein) set new standards for American journalism, and inspired thousands of idealists – along with more than a few amoral glory-hounds – to follow in their paths, All the President’s Men established a new paradigm for big-screen docudramas in general, and true-life tales of uncovered malfeasance in particular. (Just wait until you read all the allusions to Pakula’s classic – and the 1974 Woodward-Bernstein book on which it’s based -- when critics write about the inevitable Wikileaks movie.)

Just as important, Pakula’s 1976 masterwork also provided an invaluable and long overdue counterbalance to the stereotypical movie image of newspaper reporters as boozy buccaneers who talk fast, crack wise and raise hell while they comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. (A stereotype, it should be noted, that was indelibly defined in Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s 1928 play The Front Page -- which inspired a 1931 film that, coincidentally or otherwise, also is included in this year’s National Film Registry honor roll.) In the world according to Pakula, reporters spend most of their time getting doors slammed in their faces, digging through voluminous records, and walking or driving endless miles to follow leads that go nowhere.

Glamorous, it ain’t.

Robert Redford (who also produced the picture) plays Woodward, Dustin Hoffman plays Bernstein, and they’re both terrific. (Hoffman is slightly more terrific, if only because he gets some meatier, showier scenes, but never mind.) And Jason Robards is a hoot in his Oscar-winning portrayal of Post editor Ben Bradlee, who pops up periodically to remind Woodstein – and the audience – just how high the stakes are. (“We are about to accuse Bob Halderman – 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.”) But the leads give full-blooded performances, not one-dimensional star turns, and the movie’s enduring stature has relatively little to do with their celebrity.

Given the task of fashioning a compelling narrative from events at once overly familiar and off-puttingly confusing to a 1976 moviegoing public, screenwriter William Goldman earned an Academy Award by rising brilliantly to the challenge of imposing structure and generating suspense. Director Pakula -- whose thrillers Klute (1971) and The Parallax View (1974) can be viewed in retrospect as warm-up exercises – does his utmost to ensure that every scene of All the President’s Men percolates with paranoia. At the same time, though, he strives for a realistic, even semi-documentary look, and rarely invokes his dramatic license to hype the truth with Hollywooden hyperbole.

On a couple of occasions, Pakula and ace cinematographer Gordon Willis (The Godfather) artfully underscore the against-all-odds nature of the Woodstein investigation by viewing the reporters at a distance, from far, far overhead. (Note the casually brilliant sequence in the Library of Congress, as the camera pulls further and further back to show the dutifully plodding duo seeking the truth in the very center of a labyrinth.) And while the two reporters spend much of their time in dimly illuminated rooms and shadow-streaked garages while following their leads, the Washington Post newsroom set always remains brightly lit – underscoring the newspaper’s importance (in this movie, at least) as a beacon of truth.

More often, however, Pakula eschews stylistic flourishes and goes for unvarnished verisimilitude, occasionally allowing scenes to unfold in what feels like real time.

About midway through the movie, there’s a mesmerizing cat-and-mouse game played by Bernstein and a Committee to Re-Elect the President bookkeeper (Oscar-nominated Jane Alexander) who’s too sacred to be forthcoming, but too honest to be deceptive. Bernstein finagles his way into the woman’s living room, and plants himself on her couch while her sister – obviously no fan of the bookkeeper’s bosses – brings him coffee. The CREEP bookkeeper refuses to talk. Bernstein insists he will listen. And then, gradually, the ice starts to melt.

Against her better judgment, and despite her worst fears, the bookkeeper speaks volumes with tremulous nods and half-whispered monosyllables. Bernstein listens attentively, sympathetically. All you have to do is look at his eyes to tell what the guy is thinking – “Jeez, I can’t believe what I’m hearing! God, don’t let me screw this up!” – and note his tense body posture to appreciate what an effort he’s making to appear relaxed. But his smile remains pleasant and deferential; his voice, noncommittal but gently prodding. He’s not merely coaxing information from her – he’s seducing her into doing what she really wants to do.

Ever wonder how reporters get ordinary people to make extraordinary revelations? Pay close attention to this scene, which should be mandatory viewing at every journalism school.

Other scenes – including some of the movie’s funniest -- resound with a similar ring of truth. At one point, Woodward makes a cold call to a GOP official, and is so amazed when the official himself answers the phone that he’s momentarily lost for words. (He vamps, none too effectively, by twice introducing himself as “Bob Woodward of the Washington Post.”) Later, as the Woodstein team questions Hugh Sloan (Stephen Collins), a former White House insider, Sloan insists that he’s a good Republican. “So am I,” Woodward interjects, obviously trying to ingratiate himself. Bernstein says nothing, but shoots his partner an ambiguous glance that can be read as hectoring skepticism (“What a crock!”) or stunned disbelief (“You’re a what?”)

Pakula and Goldman wisely chose to conclude All the President’s Men shortly after Woodward and Bernstein make a major goof that briefly stalls their investigation. It’s a daring move, ending a movie when it appears the protagonists have been defeated. (It’s also a quintessentially ’70s touch that few contemporary filmmakers would or could risk.) But the final image of Woodward and Bernstein at work in the newsroom, pounding away at their typewriters as a televised Richard M. Nixon looms triumphantly, is a masterstroke. We don’t need to read the newswire bulletins that, in the movie’s final moments, chart Nixon’s eventual downfall. All we need to see are the two reporters doggedly pursuing the truth, illustrating how doing the right thing entails so much hard, thankless and seemingly unexciting work.

It’s worth noting, by the way, that Chris Carter, creator-producer of The X-Files, freely admits his cult TV series and its movie spin-offs were strongly influenced by All the President’s Men. Indeed, the Cigarette Smoking Man, a figure who looms large in the X-Files mythos, is an explicit hat-tip to Pakula’s film noirish depiction of “Deep Throat,” the cryptic informer (memorably played by Hal Holbrook) who pointedly warns Woodward to “follow the money.”

All the President’s Men “was a great film that just broke so many rules,” Carter told Variety in a 1999 interview. “To use the non-dramatic image of someone sitting on a telephone trying to glean information took some guts. And as a former journalist interested in investigative journalism as a young man, that kind of storytelling and investigative approach fascinated me.”

Trouble is, Carter added, “It’s a kind of entertainment that largely doesn't play anymore. Tabloidization has had a great impact, unfortunately. We’re not interested in journalists who adhere to a standard of their own. So you couldn’t do an All the President’s Men anymore.”

But thanks to the Library of Congress, you’ll always have the chance to see it.

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