All the President's Men

All the President's Men ★★★★★

My grandfather and father have 80 years of newspaper reporting between them, and at one time I fancied following in their footsteps, so I have a romantic notion about the profession, and All the President's Men, a longtime personal favorite, is the epitome of that perspective: a procedural (and dramatized) depiction of one of the greatest achievements of investigative journalism in U.S. history by two hungry, indefatigable young journalists. The raw material alone gives me a rush, but Goldman's script and Pakula's craft elevate it to great heights. The re-creation of the newsroom, for instance, is impeccable. As a child I made countless trips to my father's newsroom, and I can still recall the sensory experience: the constant, rhythmic sound of fingers typing (though by this time it was on computer keyboards, not typewriters), melodic ringing of telephones, overlapping chatter, radios and TVs relaying information, shouts across the floor, stacks of papers and files blanketing every surface, notepads covered in doodles and scribbles, the ceaseless bustle of foot traffic up and down aisles and corridors, the low hum of the florescent lighting, and the distinct scent of newsprint and ink permeating the building. The newsroom is—or, at least, was—an electric, living thing, and All the President's Men captures that space (especially in the sound design) better than any other movie.

By today's standards, the film is downright sluggish, but its quiet, gradual, step-by-step investigation and deliberate dramatic escalation reflect the nature of the work: the slow starts, the gathering of facts from multiple sources, the obsessive attention to detail for the sake of veracity, the rewrites, the confirmations and corrections, the dead-ends, the grind of it all. Pakula gets it.

He also understands the allure of the work, so he teams up with Gordon Willis (for the third time in a half-decade) to create a visual language that expresses the intrigue and peril of the investigation through a moody atmosphere established with chiaroscuro. It's similar to that of the other two films in the Pakula/Willis "paranoia trilogy," Klute and The Parallax View, but offers an even starker contrast between environments, e.g., the shadowy, clandestine meetings with various sources in houses and parking garages, where information is obtained and danger ostensibly lurks, versus the blinding brightness of the newsroom, where truth is brought into the light. Note, too, the use of composition and framing to illuminate character psychology, e.g., when Bernstein first enters Hoback's home and she eyes him at the edge of the frame through the spindles of the staircase from which she then emerges to divulge key details. Almost as criminal as the Watergate scandal is the Academy's failure to acknowledge Willis with a cinematography Oscar nomination here. Just two noms and zero wins across his entire career. Unconscionable.

Everyone on screen is doing excellent if largely unrecognized work. Hoffman's disarming, smooth-talking routine with sources. Redford's strait-laced, no-nonsense determination. Robards' sarcastic and stern yet supportive presence. Alexander's initially trepidatious but increasingly self-assured sharing of intel. There is superior stuff from smaller players, too: Robert Walden as the cagey and appropriately rat-like Segretti; Valerie Curtin in a fleeting yet heartbreaking reveal of fear when "WoodStein" return to her door.

Its perspective on American journalism may today register as too idealized or glamorized for many viewers, but there's no downplaying the significance of this investigation on history and the film's impact on American cinema and journalism as a profession, which my father witnessed firsthand. On top of being a bonafide masterpiece, All the President's Men will always be a personal and family favorite.

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