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Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Alan J. Pakula | All the President's Men


the thriller you’ve already read
by Douglas Messerli 

William Goldman (screenplay, based on the book by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward), Alan J. Pakula (director) All the President’s Men / 1976

For Christmas this year, I bought a DVD of a movie Howard and I have seen numerous times, Alan J. Pakula’s All the President’s Men. Indeed, Howard presumed that we already had it in our rather large movie library, for we think of it as one of our favorites.
      Seeing it again yesterday, I felt it was nearly as fresh as the first time we saw it, although I suppose it seemed even more immediate in 1976, since we had lived in Washington, D.C. during the very years it portrayed. 
     Although after living now in Los Angeles for many years, I have grown accustomed to seeing familiar buildings and sites in the cinema, at the time is was somewhat breathtaking to see that so many of the film’s locations were so very familiar to us. We knew the apartment building wherein the film’s Bob Woodward lives; I’d several times visited the news room of the Washington Post on my way to see book editor William McPherson; and, of course, I’d spent long hours in the Library of Congress; we’d attended so many theater and concert events in the behemoth Kennedy Center. Pakula uses dozens of noted governmental buildings that anyone who has even visited Washington immediately recognizes. So the film seemed to put me, and a great many viewers I am sure, on familiar ground 
      And yet, the story it was telling of high government intrigue and a series of mysteriously labyrinthine acts of deceit and conspiracy seemed to come from some other world, as if someone was telling me a nearly unbelievable story about my own family. And it this sense of displacement, the simultaneous knowing and hardly being able to recognize what I was hearing and seeing that created for me—and for many others who knew the city as well—a sense of awed horror, as if it had been hinted that my uncles and aunts had been involved some vast criminal act and were threatening the lives the entire family if we dared to tell anything we had known about it.

      On the other hand, I had never been an admirer of President Nixon, and certainly did not ever think of him as a friendly uncle; indeed I wanted him, as I believe the film intends, to get caught—just as we know from the beginning of this mystery-thriller he will be. 
     In fact, there is very little mystery about the events the film portrays. I had read The Washington Post every day that the film covers, encountering the gradual revelations that All the President’s Men shows us. Yet, every time I see this film I immediately grow tense, am impatient with Pakula’s steady, slow pace as the two young reporters, Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman), work to find a chink in the wall of secrecy that greets their every question. 
      The plot sends them into the vast reading room of the Library of Congress as they flip through book requests to no avail; Bernstein flies to Miami, only to cool his heels in a waiting room ruled by the icy secretary (Polly Holliday); and time and again, doors are slammed in their faces. Even “Deep Throat” (Hal Halbrook) isn’t telling, as he merely confirms or metaphorically steers Woodward  down a different road from one he is traveling: “Follow the money trail.” 
     Throughout much of this “thriller” absolutely nothing happens. Is it any wonder that Bernstein is ready to jump to easy conclusions? I mean, we know they are right in their suspicions. In short, much of tension that this film develops is out of a sense of frustration. And I’ve noted that each time I watch it, I begin to shiver—not just out of the disgust of I feel about the nation’s leaders and their institutions, but simply in anticipation.
      Every time they find one clue, the would-be heroes must seek out yet another, a third. Or they discover the questions they’ve asked were not expressed simply enough. Almost as a joke, William Goldman’s excellent script sends them suddenly into a home where a woman who, appreciative of their writing, is completely ready to talk—only to reveal a few moments later that she is an employee in the department store, Garfinkel’s, and not the government worker they sought.

     Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee (Jason Robards, Jr.) at times standing almost as a roadblock, at other times, amazingly encourages his hungry reporters to keep searching, while permitting them to move ahead with the story that, if they’d gotten it wrong, might put the entire journalistic world and the First Amendment into jeopardy. Somewhat like an overprotective father, he pushes and pulls the entity he calls Woodstein in a pattern that reiterates the rocky rhythm of their reportage: one step forward and two steps back.
      Accordingly, when Woodward and Bernstein finally get the goods on Nixon’s administration, no matter what the viewer’s political values, there is such great relief that the truth has finally been outed that he has little choice but to cheer or break out in tears.
     The subject of this film, accordingly, is not at all what it pretends to be: who was behind the Watergate break-in to the offices of the National Democratic Party. Rather, the real object of this film’s intense investigation is not so much political as it is a search for truth, for a reality that within those long governmental halls seems seldom to exist.

Los Angeles, December 30, 2015

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