Warner Bros. // 1976 // 138 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Jim Thomas // November 26th, 2013
"Nothing's riding on this except the, uh, first amendment to the Constitution, freedom of the press, and maybe the future of the country. Not that any of that matters, but if you guys [screw] up again, I'm going to get mad. Goodnight." -- Ben Bradlee (Jason Robards, Philadelphia)
It would be easy to discuss All the President's Men merely as a historical artifact. It's somewhat sobering, for instance, to compare what passes for journalism today with the tenacity and legwork with which two reporters kept after a story that no one else cared about. It's even more sobering to consider that the use of "dirty tricks" to torpedo a campaign is now a tactic routinely employed by both parties -- and more often than not, the press is a willing accomplice. But as I re-watched the movie, I realized that regardless of the movie's historical significance, it's simply a damn good movie, period. It's basically a detective story, with the two reporters doggedly chasing lead after lead, cajoling source after source, both struggling to make sense of all the disparate information that they were gathering. Now Warner Bros re-releases their search as All the President's Men (Blu-ray) Special Edition.
In the summer of 1972, the primary season was in full swing. While Senator Edmund Muskie was the initial leader, a series of events had swung momentum in favor of George McGovern. Despite the momentum, it was widely assumed that McGovern would be trounced by incumbent Richard Nixon. On June 17, burglars were captured in the offices of the Democratic National Committee, in the Watergate office complex in D.C., trying to tap the DNC phones.
Two young Washington Post reporters, Bob Woodward (Robert Redford, The Sting) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman, Tootsie) starting looking deeper into the burglary. One of the burglars, James McCord, was not only former CIA, but was also a security officer for the Nixon campaign. A little digging revealed that the burglars had been paid by the Committee to Re-elect the President (with the glorious acronym, CREEP). Something was clearly fishy, but what? Nothing made sense -- McGovern didn't have a chance against Nixon; so why would anyone bother with tapping the phones?
You know how this ended. You might not know how close they came to missing the story.
The Watergate Scandal encompassed three years, from 1972 through Nixon's resignation in 1974; the film only covers the first seven months, from the burglary to Nixon's second inaugural on January 20, 1973. At that point, the story is effectively over; the reporters understand the breadth of the conspiracy, all the key players. They've done enough to move the political machine -- i.e., Congress -- into action, and from there, it's all downhill. The focus is not the cover-up, the resignation, or the fallout, but on the initial investigation. For all the accolades, no one could accuse the movie of glamorizing journalism. There was a lot of tedium involved in the investigation, and we get to see it up close and personal, whether it's sorting through stacks and stacks of documents or getting doors continually shut in their faces, going back and forth with editors. The scenes in the Post offices are often little more than one or both reporters typing feverishly away -- but there's always the news in the background. It's a wonderful conceit Pakula uses to make the White House effectively omnipresent in the movie. We can hear updates on the campaign even as we hear the discussion that will inevitably bring the administration down -- and that serves as a reminder of just how high the stakes are.
The real trick in a film like this is generating the drama; we know how this story ends after all. Furthermore, there aren't any dramatic in-space explosions like in Apollo 13. It puts a lot of pressure on the actors to generate the tension for the audience. Redford and Hoffman are both in top form -- Hoffman comments in the extras that he and Redford learned each other's lines; as a result, they often swapped lines in the moment, or stepped on the other's lines -- the result is a wonderful, chaotic rhythm in the scenes as these two near-polar opposites forge a close working relationship. That overlapping dialogue is just one way that the tension is generated -- it helps dramatize their feverish attempts to piece together all this information, and it leads to a key final scene when Woodward's frustration boils over and he snaps at Deep Throat (Hal Holbrook, Magnum Force). That's one of the main strengths of the movie -- the way the leads' own intensity keeps us invested in their conflict.
Holbrook is just one of the many supporting players. In his commentary track, Redford notes that one reason the project was so gratifying was the dedication with which the actors threw themselves into their parts completely, even those with exceedingly minor roles. He's not exaggerating. The supporting players are solid across the board, chief among them Jason Robards, who picked up a Supporting Actor Oscar for his work as Ben Bradlee, executive editor of the Post. Bradlee, like the two reporters, suspects that there's more to Watergate than meets the eye, but he must balance his interest in shepherding the story to print with his duty to protect the integrity of the paper. You can see the scales being weighed every time Robards is on screen.
It's unclear how much effort was put into restoring the video -- certainly more could have been done. While there is a fair amount of detail in close-ups, images are noticeably softer in medium and long shots. Flesh tones are inconsistent, with orange hues more prevalent. There's a fair amount of crushing in the shadows. Of course, this is most prominent in the scenes with Deep Throat. At the same time, there are moments when you get a sense for what cinematographer Gordon Willis was trying to create, and you wish that the movie had received a more thorough restoration. In contrast, the audio is much better, free of noise and with strong stereo imaging -- most effective when you have multiple people speaking at once.
Trivia: The production attempted to film scenes at the Washington Post offices, but it caused too much disruption. So they created a near-perfect replica -- same lights, same chairs, same typewriters, same desks, same paint -- at a cost of $200,000, roughly $850,000 in today's dollars.
The extras are plentiful, beginning with a commentary track from producer star Redford made for the 2006 DVD release. Redford brings a wealth of information to the table -- production details, comparing scenes in the movie to what actually happened; Redford runs a full gamut. He spends a fair amount of time on a single scene of Woodward working at his desk at the Post -- because of all the action surrounding him and the depth of field involved, a very elaborate camera setup was required. That was back before CGI; these days such a shot could be done with little effort.
The jewel of the extras is All the President's Men Revisited, a 2013 documentary produced and narrated by Redford, which debuted on the Discovery Channel, the two-hour film brings together man of the surviving players to present an in-depth account of the Watergate Scandal. Shot in high definition (1080i) and included on a separate Blu-ray disc, it acts as a wonderful companion piece to the feature film; in that film, Woodward and Bernstein's actions take place in something of a vacuum, since for the bulk of the film they have no idea of the enormity of their investigation. Balanced with the saga are reminiscences concerning the film; some repeats material from Redford's commentary track, but the bulk is fresh, including Woodward and Bernstein talking about how Redford initially contacted them, and some stuff with Dustin Hoffman.
If you are not already familiar with Watergate, you may at times have trouble following the investigation; that may not really be a weakness, though, as there are times when Woodward and Bernstein themselves have trouble following the investigation. That's part of the point -- for much of the movie, they have all these pieces but no idea how they fit together.
It's certainly not a traditional narrative, and that was one of the reasons Redford had trouble getting studio support.
In the documentary, someone raises the question, how would today's media handle a similar scandal. The answers are generally along the order of "social media would ferret things out in no time." The answer seems a bit too facile, as it overlooks a couple of things: the ridiculous degree to which the media has been co-opted by the power structure that they are supposed to be watching, but more importantly, a sad and simple truth -- then, what Nixon did was shocking; today it's par for the course.
I was nine when Watergate happened; eleven when Nixon resigned. So while I was aware that thing called "Watergate" was going on -- by early 1974, it was ubiquitous either on the news or in a comedy routine -- the details more or less eluded me. It really wasn't until high school, when I read Woodward and Bernstein's book, that the enormity of the situation sank in.
While the video presentation leaves something to be desired, the same can't be said for anything else in the package.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 2.0 Master Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (Catalan)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (French)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (German)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (Italian)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (Japanese)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (Portuguese)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
* French (SDH)
* German (SDH)
Running Time: 138 Minutes
Release Year: 1976
MPAA Rating: Rated R