“ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN” (1976) Review
Last May and June marked the fortieth anniversary of a well-known historical event – namely the Watergate burlaries. The ensuing scandal were investigated by two Washington Post reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. The pair’s investigations were eventually chronicled in a best-selling book and later, a 1976 movie based upon the book.
As many know, five men were arrested by the police for breaking and entering the Democratic National Committee office at theWatergate Hotel during the early hours of June 17, 1972. At least two other break-ins had occurred. But the arrests of Bernard Barker, Vergilio Gonzales, Eugenio Martínez, Frank Sturgis, and James McCord caught the attention of Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. Their investigations – along with those from Time Magazine and The New York Times – of a series of crimes committed on behalf of the Nixon Administration led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon in August 1974 and a best-selling book that chronicled Woodward and Bernstein’s Watergate investigations.
Robert Redford bought the rights to Woodward and Bernstein’s book for $450,000 with the notion to adapt it into a film, with him serving as producer. Redford had no intention of acting in “ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN”. But someone at Warner Brothers agreed to release the film only if he co-starred in it. Redford agreed to portray Bob Woodward. He also brought aboard Alan J. Pakula as the film’s director and William Goldman as screenwriter. Redford, Pakula and producer Walter Coblenz hired Dustin Hoffman to portray Carl Bernstein. When Post executive editor Ben Bradlee realized that the film was going to be made with or without his approval; he, Woodward and Bernstein made a great effort to serve as the film’s technical advisers. Bradlee hoped that the movie would have a positive impact upon the public’s view on journalism.
After viewing “ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN” (for the umpteenth time), it occurred to me Bradlee’s hope may have come true. At least for a while. The movie was very effective in conveying the dogged investigation that Woodward and Bernstein underwent to uncover the Watergate scandal. Mind you, “ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN” only chronicled Woodward and Bernstein’s investigation from the arrest of the men involved, to their discovery of Nixon Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman‘s involvement, and finally to January 20, 1973; the day of Nixon’s second inauguration. In other words, it covered only the first seven months of the scandal, unlike Woodward and Bernstein’s book. And the phrase – “Follow the money” – had been invented for the movie. It was never featured in the book.
But who cares about these minor differences? “ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN” still managed to be a superb look into both the investigative process for journalists (something that today’s journalists need to study). It also provided great character studies of both Woodward and Bernstein, their interaction as a team, and also those whom they worked for at the Washington Post – especially Ben Bradlee, Harry M. Rosenfeld, and Howard Simmons. One of the more positive aspects of Woodward and Bernstein’s investigation in the movie dealt with the journalists’ handling of the various people they interviewed. I really found it fascinating – especially the scenes that featured the team’s interactions with Judy Hoback , Hugh Sloan Jr., Donald Segretti and W. Mark Felt aka “Deep Throat”.
Even though Pakula and Goldman went through a great deal on focusing upon the movie’s portrayals of the characters – major and minor, it never eluded the fact that Woodward and Bernstein’s investigation was all about the Watergate break-in and the Nixon Administration. What I found amazing about the movie’s plotting was that it did not focus on Nixon and his men right away. To emphasize the pair’s dogged investigation – especially from their point of view – the movie slowly but firmly widened the spotlight from that final break-in in June 1972 to the array of tricks, plots and crimes that members of the Nixon Administration planned to ensure the President’s re-election in November.
David Shire’s score for “ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN” struck me as subtle and very fitting for the movie’s themes of subterfuge, paranoia and secrets, while I was watching the film. But I have to be honest . . . it did not strike me as particularly memorable. On the other hand, I was more than impressed by Gordon Willis’ photography. I enjoyed his use of shadows, especially in the scenes that featured Woodward’s meetings with “Deep Throat”. I also enjoyed his use of deep focus photography. I found them very effective in the Washington Post scenes. More than anything, I enjoyed how Willis gave the movie, especially the exterior shots of Washington D.C. a natural look that was the hallmark of 1970s cinema.
But I cannot talk about “ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN” without discussing the movie’s performances. I tried to think of one performance that seemed out of step or simply bad. And I realized that I could not. The movie featured some truly outstanding performances. One, “ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN” featured cameo performances from those who were known at the time or future stars. First-rate performances came from the likes of Polly Holliday, Ned Beatty, Penny Fuller, Carl Franklin, Valerie Curtin, John McMartin, Lindsay Crouse, Allyn Ann McLerie and Meredith Baxter. But there were supporting performances that I found exceptional. Stephen Collins gave a wonderfully subtle performance as Hugh Sloan Jr., the Republican aide who was disgusted by the illegal activities of the Nixon Administration. Martin Balsam was great as Post editor Howard Simmons, one of those who had nurtured the careers of younger journalists like Woodward and Bernstein. And I especially enjoyed Jack Warden’s colorful portrayal of Harry Rosenfeld, the Post editor that oversaw the Watergate coverage. Jane Alexander received a Best Supporting Actress nomination for her performance as Judy Hoback, a bookeeper for CRP. She deserved the attention, thanks to her ability to convey Hoback’s jittery personality in such a subtle manner. And Jason Robards won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his spot-on portrayal of Ben Bradlee. I thought his portrayal of Bradlee would be all over the map. Much to my delight, he managed to keep it tight and entertaining at the same time.
Aside from director Alan J. Pakula, the two men who really held this movie together like glue were Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman. They were superb as Woodward and Bernstein. It seemed a pity that neither was nominated for a Best Actor Academy Award. Then again, if that had happened, their nominations would have guaranteed the victory of a third party. If I had my way, I would have allowed them to share the award. Both Redford and Hoffman were like a well-oiled team. The actors not only delved into the individual personalities of their characters, but also made it easy for moviegoers to see how two such men disparate men became such an effective journalistic team. They made one of the best on-screen acting team I have ever seen . . . period. And it is a pity that people rarely acknowledge this.
I am not saying that “ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN” is a flawless film. There is no such thing as a movie that is flawless in my eyes. However, the only flaws that come to mind is that the movie only covered the first seven months of Woodward and Bernstein’s investigation and it utilized a phrase that was never used in real life or featured in the 1974 book. Otherwise, I feel that “ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN” is one of the best movies to be released in the 1970s. And to this day, I find it hard to believe that of all movies, it turned out to be “ROCKY” that beat it for the Best Picture Oscar.