Sunday, November 21, 2010

All the President’s Men (1976)


          Easily one of the most important American films of the ’70s, this spellbinder about the Washington Post reporters whose coverage of the Watergate break-in helped topple Richard Nixon works as an exciting character piece, a meticulous journalism procedural, and a taut political thriller. Producer-star Robert Redford, deep into a run of great movies that proved he was more than a pretty-boy leading man, nurtured the project from day one. He prodded real-life Post journalists Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward to adapt their Watergate stories into the nonfiction book All the President’s Men, which was released in 1974, and coached them through shaping the book’s narrative. For the film adaptation, he recruited screenwriter William Goldman (who won an Oscar for his work) and director Alan J. Pakula, both of whom contributed enormously to the magic act of generating suspense even though everybody already knew the ending. The development of the picture was rocky. At one point the real Bernstein and his then-girlfriend, Nora Ephron, wrote a draft of the script without Goldman’s knowledge, fabricating a scene portraying Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) as a kind of journalistic secret agent who worms his way past a secretary to reach an elusive source. The scene made it into the final picture, and Goldman has lamented that it’s the only made-up moment in the story.
          Despite the offscreen intrigue, All the President’s Men is a watershed moment for its participants. From Redford and Hoffman to Goldman and Pakula to composter David Shire and cinematographer Gordon Willis, everyone involved does some of their best-ever work. Beautifully capturing the haphazard beginnings of the investigation, when Woodward (Redford) wasn’t even sure he’d found a real story, and frighteningly depicting the private conversations among men who realized they were about to take down a commander-in-chief, the movie is as fascinating about process as it is entertaining. Among the spectacular supporting cast, Jason Robards is the Oscar-winning standout as gruffly principled editor Ben Bradlee, and Hal Holbrook is chilling as government informant “Deep Throat,” who meets Woodward a series of shadowy parking garages. Jane Alexander, Martin Balsam, Stephen Collins, Nicholas Coster, Robert Walden, and Jack Warden all excel in smaller roles. As for the above-the-title players, Hoffman and Redford generate palpable oil-and-water friction. Among the many great things this movie offers, perhaps most impressive is the fact that the film never forgets—or overplays—the importance of the history it depicts. Not exactly the easiest needle to thread, but All the Preisdent’s Men accomplishes the task gracefully.

All the President’s Men: OUTTA SIGHT

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