Combustible Celluloid
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With: Robert Redford, Dustin Hoffman, Jack Warden, Martin Balsam, Hal Holbrook, Jason Robards, Jane Alexander, Meredith Baxter, Ned Beatty, Stephen Collins, Penny Fuller, John McMartin, Robert Walden, Frank Willis
Written by: William Goldman, based on a book by Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein
Directed by: Alan J. Pakula
MPAA Rating: PG (previously rated 'R')
Running Time: 138
Date: 04/04/1976

All the President's Men (1976)

4 Stars (out of 4)

The Unmaking of the President

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Alan J. Pakula's All the President's Men (1976) gambled on the fact that men talking on phones, scribbling in notepads and typing could be exciting -- and won. No political thriller made today would have the courage to strip its story to the bare bones; instead, it would have to be padded out with sneering, cackling bad guys, guns, chases and escapes. (Sydney Pollack's recent The Interpreter would be a disgraceful example.) It helps that All the President's Men has at its core one hell of a story, and a true one at that. It was fresh off the presses, just three years from actual events, to book, to movie.

Warner Home Video has re-released this great film in a vibrant new two-disc DVD set, supplanting their washed-out 1997 edition. It's also available in a new box set ($59.98), also containing Dog Day Afternoon (1975) and Network (1976). For anyone under 30 -- and in a nutshell -- the film outlines the events following the June 17, 1972 break-in at the Watergate Hotel, which served as the Democratic National Committee Headquarters. The five men arrested didn't appear to be anyone important. The Washington Post assigned two rookie reporters to follow the story, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. They followed slim leads, hunches and elusive clues from a mysterious source called Deep Throat and found that the break-in story led all the way to top officials in the White House. Just over two years later, on August 9, 1974, President Richard Nixon resigned rather than face an impeachment trial.

It's astonishing how All the President's Men manages to make all this physically, grippingly suspenseful. Directed by Alan J. Pakula (Klute, Presumed Innocent), the film never shows any bad guys or showdowns, and yet it sustains a palpable sense of menace. Woodward (played by Robert Redford, who also produced) merely has to look over his shoulder in one shot to capture a feeling of paranoia. In one scene, Woodward tracks down a series of leads on the phone. The camera stays on him, unbroken for several minutes, and tracks in ever so quietly, mounting the suspense in ways that we can't even see or detect. As played by Dustin Hoffman in arguably his best performance, Bernstein projects a jittery intensity throughout, especially when psychologically working over a tough source that doesn't want to talk (played by Jane Alexander, who received an Oscar nomination for her work). He keeps accepting and drinking more and more coffee in order to stick around and get her to open up.

Cinematographer Gordon Willis (The Godfather, Manhattan) photographs the newspaper office as a deep cavern, lit by rows of square fixtures and supported by ominous rectangular columns. Oddly, the parking garage in which Woodward meets Deep Throat (Hal Holbrook) looks much the same, but darker. All of Washington D.C., in fact, has a blocky, concrete look as if everyone working there were trapped in a giant, drained reservoir. Even the soundtrack is sparse. No theatrical score thunders and trumpets from behind the screen, telling us how to feel. The only "music" comes from typewriter keys and pens scratching on paper. It's this empty, stripped feeling that makes the film work. Not only does it lack generic thrills and chills, it also lacks any kind of socio-political discourse. In the screenplay by William Goldman (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid), no one ever preaches or speaks ill of Nixon, his activities or his policies. The film lets his offscreen actions speak for him, and indeed, it boldly opens on the President's triumphant return from China.

But because we haven't been told what to think, the film remains urgently relevant today as a David-and-Goliath story against those who use political office as a means of obtaining personal power and plotting against their fellow man. From today's point of view it seems impossible, but All the President's Men hit box office pay dirt. It was the year's second biggest hit (after One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest), and it even outgrossed audience pleasers like The Bad News Bears and The Omen. It received eight Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, and won four awards. Jason Robards took home Best Supporting Actor for his great performance as the tough, courageous Post editor Ben Bradlee. Goldman won for his screenplay, and the film captured Best Sound and Best Art Direction/Set Decoration.

George Clooney's recent Good Night, and Good Luck comes the closest to this type of excellence of any film in 30 years, but even it can't resist a bit of speechifying. (Perhaps not coincidentally, Warner Home Video is releasing Good Night, and Good Luck on DVD just a few weeks after All the President's Men.)

The 2006 DVD comes with several new features, notably an excellent audio commentary track by Redford, who -- it turns out -- had quite a bit of input on the look and feel of the film, and even managed to influence the tone of Woodward and Bernstein's 1974 book. The first disc also comes with a gallery of trailers from director Pakula (who died in a gruesome freeway accident in 1998 on the Long Island Expressway). The second disc contains several new featurettes, mostly of the talking-head-and-clip variety. One talks about Deep Throat, whose identity was kept secret until June of last year, when he was revealed as Mark Felt, a high-ranking official from the FBI. There's a vintage featurette from 1976, which, interestingly, is also a talking-head-and-clip number. Finally, we get a clip of a Jason Robards interview on Dinah Shore's TV show.

Most of the same extras are preserved on Warner Home Video's 2011 Blu-Ray edition, which also comes with a handsome, glossy booklet. In 2013, Warner issued another Blu-ray edition, a two-disc set, for the 40th anniversary of Watergate; the first disc is the same, but the second disc contains a new 87-minute documentary about Watergate and the film, narrated by Robert Redford. This set does not include the glossy booklet.

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