“All the President’s Men” (1976): The last paranoia film
How is it that “All the President’s Men” still holds up as such an intense, gripping political thriller? Don’t audiences today want car chases, femme fatales and weapons of mass destruction? Going into this, I knew I wouldn’t be watching some high-octane thriller with Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein storming the White House and fending off mobs of President Richard Nixon’s goons, but still, I’m incredibly impressed with how the 1976 classic refrains from presenting an exaggerated account of true events.
Contrary to the ‘70s thrillers helmed by actors like Clint Eastwood or Charles Bronson, Alan J. Pakula handles the thriller genre so delicately that you feel as though you aren’t watching a film at all. Utter realism and chilling paranoia shroud “All the President’s Men” as it pulls its audience into the rabbit hole of Watergate as uncovered through the research of Washington Post reporters Woodward and Bernstein.
Hypnotic click clacking of typewriter keys and rotary phones conjure the film’s soundtrack, immediately immersing you into the office of The Washington Post. Novice reporter Woodward, played by Robert Redford, and the plainspoken Bernstein, played by Dustin Hoffman, are determined to write the story of their careers by investigating the link between a break-in at Watergate hotel, where the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters was located, and the committee to reelect Nixon.
A dominating amount of the runtime follows the protagonists in their office making phone calls and taking notes, or on their door-to-door struggle to find willing sources for their articles. Normally, this mundane and repetitive activity would utterly murder a screenplay, however, every bit of dialogue, every nail-biting testimony and every fragment of uncovered evidence is soaked with boundless thrill and tension. During each revelation, a higher-ranking member of the Nixon administration is implicated, raising the stakes on who exactly they’re up against.
Pakula exceedingly pushes the boundaries by showing very little, and saying very much. Sharp-tongued dialogue saturates “All the President’s Men.” The characters themselves even question the legitimacy of the conspiracy they’re discovering, remaining speculatory of their research. Pakula cleverly teases the known truth of the scandal throughout the film. Evidence is always right under the noses of Woodward and Bernstein, but is undervalued and deemed unbelievable by so many. I mean really, how could the president ever be a crook? Clearly people thought more narrowly of their government in the seventies.
It’s baffling to see that by the end of the film, over half of Americans didn’t even know what Watergate was. “All the President’s Men” chooses to end just before the scandal erupted into the public eye. A final shot is beautifully framed on a television screen as Nixon is happily inaugurated, while the sleuth reporters crunch away their typewriter keys in the background.
There’s a fable-like comeuppance in the arc of the infamous, self-destructive Nixon. His popularity grew steadily as he began his second presidential term, only to subsequently crumble like the walls of Jericho. Interestingly, Pakula chooses to compose the Watergate narrative while almost completely ignoring Nixon as a character. The few fragments we see of the flabby-jowled president are from archival footage played through the small, boxy television sets littering The Washington Post’s headquarters. Perhaps the lack of Nixon in the film makes him more intimidating. By his absence, an invisible barrier is placed, and he becomes an untouchable force in the viewer’s mind. To add to this, choosing not to end the film with Nixon’s downfall was also genius in itself, for it placed the greater and more deserving emphasis on the hard labor of Woodward and Bernstein.
Visually captivating imagery, riveting dialogue and outstanding performances all seized awards for this thriller. Seasoned professionals, Redford and Hoffman, were enthralling choices for the two Watergate investigators. Jason Robard’s remarkable portrayal of the no-nonsense executive editor, Ben Bradlee, also should be recognized. Each interaction was solid as well as the slow burning tension that escalated each scene, especially the several secret parking garage meetings between Woodward and his enigmatic informant, “Deep Throat.”
Honestly, after watching this film, it’s clear that Pakula had mastered his craft. One of his most prominent contributions to cinema was his “Paranoia Trilogy.” “All the President’s Men” is listed as the third installment and only non-fictional film of the trilogy. I highly recommend the first two films: “Klute” (1971) and “The Parallax View” (1974), as they hold up similarly to this film.
In Pakula’s three Paranoia films he emphasizes invisible danger. Much like how Nixon’s administration is an unseen evil in this film, the other films also set their protagonists against an unseen force. In my opinion, each is a definitive cinematic landmark that captures the fears of an uneasy American public in the 1970s. “All the President’s Men” is deserving of all the praise it receives, being one of the most subtly electrifying thrillers of its time, and ultimately praising the efforts of good journalism.