Friday, June 27, 2014


My Journalism 101 professor at the University of Texas (and forgive me, I can't recall his name) was a huge fan of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein's bestselling book, ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN. In fact, the book was on our course syllabus and was required reading for all students.

I had already read an excerpt from the book in PLAYBOY magazine (yes, I did read PLAYBOY for the articles, among other things). I read the book and enjoyed it immensely. The film version of the book was released that spring (1976), and our professor insisted that we all see the film in addition to reading the book. He also asked us to read the issue of PLAYBOY that contained the famous Jimmy Carter interview in which the then presidential candidate admitted to having "lust in his heart". That professor was pretty progressive and I think he saw Woodward and Bernstein as the new patron saints of investigative journalism (he wasn't wrong in this assessment). I also think he wanted each and every one of us in the class to become the next Bob Woodward or Carl Bernstein. I don't think any of us ever achieved that status. I know I sure as hell didn't.

I saw the film on first release at the old Capitol Plaza Cinema. I watched it again yesterday for the first time in years and I was amazed at how well it has stood up over the years. Even if you didn't live through the Watergate era and the fall of President Richard Nixon (as I did), anyone going into this film for the first time has to know the final outcome. Yet, director Alan J. Pakula and screenwriter William Goldman, manage to generate a fair amount of suspense in the film, which is both a  fairly accurate account of American history and a perfect example of the cinema of paranoia that existed in the 1970s. A paranoia, ironically enough, created in large part by the criminal activities of President Richard Nixon and his men.

Several things stood out while watching the film. When Woodward (Robert Redford) and Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) are interviewing people for their stories, Pakula almost never has them all in the same frame. He cuts from shots of Woodward solo, Bernstein solo or W&B together, to their interview subject. It's a nice visual way of showing how the reporters try to remain detached and apart from their sources in their pursuit of the facts. Also, there's one terrific shot of Woodward sitting at his desk talking to sources on the phone. It's a long, single take in which Pakula starts fairly wide with a medium shot and then slowly, ever so slowly pushes the camera in on Woodward's face, eclipsing all of the background newsroom action. It's just a guy talking on a phone but the way it's filmed and acted, it generates a slow build up of suspense.

There's the cloak and dagger stuff of Woodward's midnight meetings in a parking garage with his unnamed source, Deep Throat (Hal Holbrook). In 2005, the identity of Deep Throat was revealed as F.B.I. Associate Director Mark Felt. Pakula  and Goldman get the details of the daily workings of a newspaper right. The supporting cast is outstanding with Jack Warden, Martin Balsam and Jason Robards all turning in fine work. The actual narrative ends with the second inauguration of Richard Nixon in 1973 playing out on a newsroom television set while Woodward and Bernstein continue to write stories in the background. Then, a series of tight closeups of wire service headlines and datelines are hammered out like gun shots reporting the arrests and convictions of various Watergate players, ending with the final one announcing the resignation of Nixon on August 9th, 1974. I remember it well.

ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN received 8 Academy Award nominations including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor and Actress. It won for Best Art Direction (the Washington Post newsroom set is incredible), Best Sound and Best Supporting Actor (Robards). It's a fascinating look at the way newspaper reporting used to be conducted using electric typewriters, rotary phones, telephone directories, lots of phone calls and shoe leather, countless face to face interviews and even a little bit of clever subterfuge to get to a source. Woodward and Bernstein did good, important work and the film honors what those men did. Highly recommended.

No comments:

Post a Comment