April 11, 2010

#77: All the President's Men

After a jarring opening sequence where the date "June 1, 1972" is typed like gunshots, we see President Nixon about to address the House of Representatives, smiling like he's got nothing to hide. But as an audience, we know better.

Alan J. Pakula's 1976 political thriller All the President's Men was based on a book of the same name by Bob Woodward (played in the film by Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein (played by Dustin Hoffman), two Washington Post journalists who helped to unravel and publicize the Watergate scandal and the Nixon campaign's sabotage attempts against their Democratic rivals. You could argue that this year was maybe one of the best Best Picture line-ups ever (this film, along with Network, Taxi Driver and Bound for Glory all lost out to Rocky), with four of the five (all but Bound) on this AFI list. Not a light moment in any of these, it seems. The country was seriously mad as hell in the mid-70s.

Company: just me again. Getting kinda sick of this.

Cuisine: Ceruforoxime (my new antibiotic for my swollen tonsils ... delightful) and Throat Coat

Woodward and Bernstein investigate.

The film follows closely the endeavors of these two journalists as they struggle with unwilling and possibly unrealible sources, skeptical editors, and threats against their lives. The scandal that ultimately led to Nixon's resignation obviously had huge political and social implications for Americans in the mid-70s, but how does it affect our conscience today? In other words, does this film still speak to us today?

Deep Throat (Hal Holbrook) whispers encouragement.

Certainly we can relate to the idea of untrustworthy government, of cover-ups and lies and dishonest politicians. But All the President's Men still seems to me like a movie that doesn't really get made anymore. There were no late-night car chases, there was no sex scene ... the film took itself very seriously, and while I don't need a car chase or a sex scene in a thriller, I do think that as a movie-going public we've moved past the time when "words as weapons" is enough to excite us the way it used to. I'm trying to think of a modern example ... maybe In the Loop, but that's so obviously a satirical comedy. Maybe that's a jab at special effects and the average moviegoer's attention span, and maybe it's meant to be.

That's not to say that the film isn't well-crafted, but I did find myself wishing it would move quicker. That probably mirrors some of the journalists' frustrations with how slowly their investigation was going thanks to their hesitant sources. Hoffman and Redford do their best to move the film along, and their supporting players (particularly Holbrook as Deep Throat, Jason Robards as a cranky newspaper editor and Jane Alexander as a frightened bookkeeper who fears she knows too much) turn in nuanced performances that makes the film worth watching. But it did raise questions for me and for a 21st-century audience: will we still sit through a two-and-a-half-hour "thriller" where the war is with words and words alone?

I don't know the answer, but based on the success and awards haul of the film, I'm guessing the audience in 1976 said yes. Have we evolved past this kind of film? It's a question to which I just don't have an answer. Hmm.

Next up is a film that's maybe a little easier to digest, but still has a lot of debate surrounding it: Robert Zemeckis' Forrest Gump.

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