Film Appreciation: All The President’s Men

Film Appreciation: All The President’s Men

Sometimes it is impossible to duplicate the impact a film has when first released. For generations accustomed to sound films, Al Jolson’s speech from The Jazz Singer (“Wait a minute, wait a minute, you ain’t heard nothing yet!”) does not seem extraordinary. If you are used to today’s CGI, the special effects of Star Wars: A New Hope may not dazzle you. And if you did not live through Watergate, All The President’s Men may just seem like a sharply written political thriller.

Alan J. Pakula’s film had a completely different effect on U.S. audiences in 1976. It offered a formal end to the Watergate scandal while providing a relatively concise explanation of what had occurred. Critics and audiences responded enthusiastically.

William Goldman’s script begins with Watergate security guard Frank Willis investigating a door with the bolt taped over so that it cannot lock. He calls the police, who enter the Watergate and arrest five men in the Democratic National Committee headquarters.

The Washington Post editors, thinking the story unimportant, assign it to new reporter Bob Woodward (Robert Redford). When Woodward arrives at the courthouse, he finds there are many strange aspects to the case. All five defendants decline public defenders because they already have the services of a high-priced attorney. One defendant, James W. McCord Jr., claims to have worked for the C.I.A.

As Woodward does more checking, he connects the burglars to another former C.I.A. employee, E. Howard Hunt, as well as Charles Colson, Special Counsel to President Richard Nixon.

Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman), a more senior Post reporter, wants on this case badly. He goes so far as to take Woodward’s copy and rewrite it. The two men have words but settle their differences. When they are both assigned to the case, they are able to work well together.

The only problem is, their case has stalled. They have difficulty getting proof for their theories, and executive editor Ben Bradlee (Jason Robards) will not let them proceed without it. In desperation, Woodward contacts an old source from the FBI, a man the Post editorial staff dubs Deep Throat (Hal Holbrook). He will only meet Woodward very late at night, in a deserted parking garage.

Deep Throat confirms information and gives cryptic clues, but he rarely provides direct information. Meanwhile, Woodward and Bernstein face continuing pressure to bring this matter to a close.

All The President’s Men is the third in Alan J. Pakula’s trilogy on paranoia, with Klute and The Parallax View. This mood is established largely through Gordon Willis’ cinematography, with its masterful use of chiaroscuro in such places as the parking lot where Woodward meets with Deep Throat. By contrast, the Post newsroom seems more brightly lit, in keeping with its role as the beacon of truth. Editing by Robert L. Wolfe also helps to maintain tension and, thus, the sense of menace.

Goldman’s script does a remarkable job of making disparate and complex story elements into a coherent narrative. His pacing helps establish the mood of threat and paranoia, but he also leavens the script with sharply written dialogue.

The identity of Deep Throat remained a matter of conjecture for years. Finally, acknowledgement came in 2005 that Deep Throat was Mark Felt. At the time of Watergate, Felt had been FBI Deputy Director (second in command). For thirty-three years, only Woodward knew Deep Throat’s identity. In the end, Deep Throat outed himself.

Theme: Political Corruption

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