All the President’s Men: Follow the Paper Trail

05/06/2010 8:54 AM |

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A detective story with a foregone conclusion for an ending, All the President’s Men (tonight at Film Forum) is a film more about process than results. Not that Woodward and Bernstein didn’t get those too. Exhorted by history’s most notorious unnamed source to “follow the money,” Woodstein (as their editor dubs them) chase a paper trail of cashier’s checks and shredded accounting records, of photocopies and telexes and address books, leading them inexorably to the Oval Office. But the big fish they’re after remains off-screen, glimpsed fleetingly in all his smug, sweaty glory on the small Sony Trinitron in the Washington Post newsroom, or else, by synecdoche, in occasional exterior views of the White House.

What we mostly see instead in Alan J. Pakula’s 1976 Watergate masterpiece are two men (Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman) at their desks, working the (rotary dial) phones and taking notes. A lot of notes. No animals were harmed in the making of All the President’s Men, but a rainforest or two must have gone down for it. While Nixon and his goon squad rely on the latest cutting-edge electronic gear, Woodward and Bernstein fight the good fight with pen and paper. And that, ultimately, is what makes a this classic such a fitting wrap-up for Film Forum’s recent series devoted to the newspaper picture. Set in the summer of 1972, All the President’s Men takes place in a bygone era of technology, a world not just of newspapers, but of paper, full stop.

That nostalgia factor wouldn’t mean jack, though, if the movie weren’t holding up so goddamn well as a thriller. Pakula—who had already helmed two other conspiracy pics, Klute (1971) and The Parallax View (1974)—does a fine job of keeping the proceedings cool and collected, well-paced and temperate. But Pakula’s unassuming direction takes a back seat to the film’s Oscar-winning sound design, to Robert L. Wolfe’s remarkable editing—which makes even the doodles on a yellow legal pad exciting—and most importantly, to Gordon Willis’s legendary deep-focus cinematography. Harnessing the inherent creepiness of fluorescent lighting, Willis made a set as ghoulish as The Shining’s Overlook Hotel out of a D.C. parking garage, launching a thousand sickly green imitators, from Fight Club to Zodiac to Michael Clayton.

If there’s a single auteur here, however, it’s Redford, who bought the property and assembled the cast and crew himself. Woodward and Bernstein didn’t like each other personally, and one of the movie’s great pleasures, on repeated viewings, is the anti-chemistry between Redford’s Midwestern WASP and Hoffman’s skittish, blue-collar Jew. Redford suggested to Hoffman that they memorize each other’s lines in addition to their own, so that the actors could start, finish, or interrupt each other’s sentences at improvisational will. The effect is tremendous for its halting naturalism, but just as crucial are all the silent, disapproving glances the duo trade—as when Redford cops to being a Republican while the two are interviewing a former GOP flunky, or when Hoffman ignites yet another cigarette inside an elevator. Matinee idols playing a couple of schlubs in corduroy blazers, we can’t take our eyes off these guys, except when Jason Robards, as Executive Editor Ben Bradlee, saunters through the newsroom.

With his feet perpetually aloft, the better to display his polished Gucci loafers, Robard’s Bradlee is the most intimidating boss you’ve ever had, an imperious lord of skepticism. “You know the results of the latest Gallup poll?” he asks his reporters in a penultimate late-night scene on his front lawn. “Half the country never even heard of the word Watergate. Nobody gives a shit.” And then Robards launches into a sentimental speech about how America’s future is in the hands of Woodstein and how, naturally, they better not fuck up. Nearly forty years after its release, the idealism of All the President’s Men, its utter lack of irony or guile, is starting to look as dated as its typewriters and shag haircuts. There’s no need necessarily to cry over the demise of the traditional newspaper business, but this faith that an older generation of newsmen had in the truth, in its ability to foil chief executive criminals, is something we all ought to mourn.