Friday, April 13, 2012

Exposing The Crimes Of Presidents Is The Work Of All The President’s Men

The Good: Great acting, Good story, Moments of good character work/development
The Bad: Character often gets sublimated to the plot, Pacing
The Basics: Great acting and an interesting story barely overcome the plot and character limitations of All The President’s Men, a somewhat mediocre film about the importance of investigative journalism.

For those who do not follow my reviews, I am rather politically involved. I love politics and movies, plays, books and music that deal with politics - modern and historical - tend to interest me. Recently, I found myself enjoying the political satire Man Of The Year and I dug up the Sean Penn film All The King's Men. So, when a friend strongly recommended All The President’s Men, a classic movie about the Watergate break-in and the media's role in uncovering the cover-up, I gladly picked up the two-disc DVD to give it my attention.

The days after five burglars are arrested for breaking into the Democratic Committee's offices at the Watergate Hotel, reported Bob Woodward finds himself at their arraignment talking to a mysterious figure who insists he is not there. This starts a series of irregularities - like the burglars having legal counsel outside the lawyers appointed to them, despite not making any calls for such - that Woodward observes and makes him question what the break-in was all about. He is paired with the more seasoned writer Carl Bernstein and the two begin to unravel a political mystery that suggests that the break-in at the Watergate is tied to the highest levels of government. Woodward and Bernstein stumble upon clues by people involved who slip up, covertly get them information, and who they trick into confirming their suspicions.

In these tumultuous times, All The President’s Men is timely and a strong argument for the importance of an unbiased media to keep those in power honest about their positions and dealings. Woodward and Bernstein uncover a plot that ultimately reaches up to the President of the United States of America, who oversaw the destruction of his political adversaries using the trappings of the office. The president, of course, is Nixon and the film - released in 1976 - hinges on the viewer's understanding of what came next as opposed to illustrating it.

I write that because All The President’s Men is a remarkably inconsistent movie, revealed as such on the new DVD. The film belabors making the first few connections and starting the case over the first forty-minutes of the movie and it spends much of the rest of the movie establishing a connection between the burglars and one person within the White House, following a number of dead ends and convoluted conversations that establish only one new piece of information. After a single person within the White House is established as connected, the movie simply ends. Boom, over two hours and the film simply ends. It's only in a footnote preceding the credits that notes that this takes down Nixon. In the film, the connections are never made that even suggest that Nixon had any involvement in the Watergate break-in or the subsequent cover-up.

All The President’s Men clearly establishes that the intelligence community is being manipulated by someone, probably within the White House, but it never establishes that that person is Nixon. I mean, watching shows like The West Wing (reviewed here!), it becomes clear that there are entire levels of control and influence exerted by the White House that the President never knows about, that the Chief of Staff has remarkable control over.

This is more a journalistic epic, tracing the clues as they fall into place by two intrepid reporters. More than being about the political machinations, this film is about the journalistic processes that went into exposing the political abuses. As a result, this film is very plot-intensive. The movie spends a great deal of time establishing how Woodward and Bernstein did what they did.

Almost entirely neglected in All The President’s Men is why Woodward and Bernstein follow the story so doggedly. It adequately explains why the editor of the Washington Post, Ben Bradlee, is motivated to continue publishing the findings of the intrepid reporters, but it does not explain why Woodward and Bernstein were so motivated. The DVD bonuses clearly reveal that the reporters were motivated by patriotism and loyalty to the spirit of their jobs through commentary tracks and featurettes, but it's not in the movie.

So, for example, director Alan J. Pakula wonderfully illustrates the effect of all the work and searching is having on Woodward as he becomes terrified for his life. Pakula wonderfully illustrates this in an otherwise random scene where Woodward begins glancing over his shoulder and simply running away from nothing. The problem is there is no subsequent scene that illustrates why his resolve does not crack. Instead, he simply continues doing what he was before with little regard for his own life without anything shown to make the viewer believe this is smart or natural.

This is not a criticism of the actors, but rather an acknowledgment that the screenwriters prioritized the plot points and machinations of the methods used by the characters as opposed to exploring their motivations, goals and desires. Actors Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford do a good job of creating performances that we can infer a lot from, but none of it is made explicit, making the movie a bit more murky than it ought to be.

And the film is both a little long (138 minutes) and feels long. So, while I can easily sit down and watch a three hour movie, the ones I do watch do not feel ponderous and long. All The President’s Men realistically recreates the sense of searching and working for answers which might be very satisfying in reality, it makes for a mediocre cinematic experience. Pakula tries to mitigate this with some interesting stylistic elements (the crane shot in the Library of Congress is a classic, iconic image from this film), but ultimately, this movie leaps awkwardly around.

As a matter of storytelling, All The President’s Men is inconsistent in how it belabors moments, captures the experience of running into dead ends and the reporters are met with frustration and stonewalling. But then, they will suddenly be in possession of another name, another fact that the viewer is not privy to and the result is that the movie feels somewhat referential. More than being a complete, encapsulated experience, All The President’s Men feels like it is trying to tell the story to people who already know it, so when Woodward and Bernstein are figuring out whose initials fit which personas within the possible conspiracy, only they have the lists of names, only they know the background of all of the players involved.

This creates a weird dialectic where the movie illustrates a strange combination of too much information (in the process of how Woodward and Bernstein and the Washington Post did their work) and too little information, the specifics of how the reporters narrowed down the options and made the connections they did.

Despite the character limitations, All The President’s Men is well-acted by leads Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford. I'm unsure how Hoffman received top billing, but he does an excellent job as Carl Bernstein. Constantly smoking, Hoffman plays an understated reporter who seems to slouch through his task and uses the misperceptions others have about him to his best ability.

Robert Redford here is serious, intense and impressive. I recently saw Redford in The Clearing and here he plays such an entirely different character with equal ability to convince the viewer of the reality of the persona that it makes the argument for Redford as a truly great actor. Redford plays Woodward with seriousness, devotion and a maturity that encapsulates the idyllic nobility of investigative journalists. There is simply not a moment that Redford is on screen that the viewer is not sold on his character's integrity, ability and reality.

Ultimately, though, the acting is not enough to undo the character elements that are shaky at best. This plot-heavy movie lacks the solid methodology of other political thrillers or documentaries, making it somewhat more difficult to watch objectively. It is likely to be enjoyed by anyone who likes a great journalistic story and it can be fun to watch for those who are interested in politics, but objectively it fails on a number of character and plot levels to construct a story that is compelling and, above all, makes sense based on the material presented.

For other political films, be sure to visit my reviews of:
All The King’s Men
Charlie Wilson’s War
The Ides Of March


For other movie reviews, please visit my Movie Review Index Page for a complete listing of all the films I have reviewed!

© 2012, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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