Rewatching ‘All The President’s Men’ on the anniversary of Nixon’s resignation.
Forty-three years ago today, Richard Nixon’s resignation as U.S. president became official, and so I thought it would be a good time to talk about All The President’s Men, even more so than the other 364 days a year when it’s also a good time. It’s a great movie. Not only is it rock-solid pop cinema from a craft perspective, the subject matter is fascinating, to wit the investigation that would prove to be Nixon’s downfall.
As a text, All The President’s Men is the great heroic epic of journalists, self-penned by the twin heroes. This is not to say that Woodward and Bernstein exaggerate; far from it, they relate their work dryly, free of adornment. It’s the story itself that takes on the mythic affect and the circumstances of the duo’s unraveling of it. To put it as plainly as possible, it is utterly fucking bonkers that the president of the United States had some henchmen break into the opposition party’s headquarters to steal information. Subsequent presidents got (and get) up to some shenanigans too, but the whole Watergate thing was abject lunacy. As if that wasn’t enough, the Watergate scandal happened at probably the last time in American history when the press was sufficiently free of corporate control that a reporter or reporters could have the latitude to pursue such a story as far as they could. It was the first time any American journalist(s) ever got to pull off something of this magnitude, and the last opportunity they would ever get, despite becoming the heroic epic that would launch many careers.
The book gave the movie its basis, but it’s the movie that solidified the mythos. Redford and Hoffman are, despite Woodward and Bernstein’s ongoing real-life celebrity status, inevitably who one pictures when one thinks of the pair. Redford and Hoffman match up well, in what seems to be a frictional Movie Star vs. Actor conflict (though both are movie stars and actors), eventually clicking into place as a perfectly harmonious duo, two heavily caffeinated minds acting as one. Their energy drives the movie, the fastest two hour and twenty-minute movie ever made. On top of which rarity, it’s the exceedingly rare “based on a true story” Hollywood movie that for the most part—one bit of deft Dustin Hoffman semi-slapstick aside—is simply that story, verbatim, without the cautious deployment of poetic license in the cause of drama. It all comes back to the story; All The President’s Men is a rare bird indeed, a story whose particulars and the linear revelation of them are equally as fascinating.
Alan Pakula’s directing, and Gordon Willis’ camera, spend most of the movie seemingly asking “can you believe this shit?” The style is in aid of the material, necessarily part of it but still standing with the observer rather than obtrusively guiding, ultimately splitting the difference between the fashionable realism of its time with a classicist “invisible touch,” a state of cinema far more difficult to achieve than it sounds, and which consists of far more than “getting out of the way.” The less obtrusive style also broadens the potential audience (if it was up to me, that wouldn’t be the case, but it’s not up to me), and for a movie that’s essentially carving history into a tablet for future generations, that’s certainly a defensible choice.
But what of Nixon, and what of his descendants? The movie trails off before getting to the president’s actual downfall, concluding with narrating text typed by typewriters. It’s a bit of an exhale, cinematically, from the earlier drama. And it’s a way of addressing the fact that, despite the epochal scope of the scandal, Nixon was allowed to resign, be pardoned, and eventually allowed elder statesman status. His party suffered no lasting consequences and was free to devolve on its own, until the present day. Woodward and Bernstein went on to decades of celebrity and occasionally great but sporadic feats of journalism. All of which, rather than strictly political editorializing, is meant to point out that where one ends a story is a determinant between it being a tragedy or a triumph. All The President’s Men ending on the ambiguous note it does is what keeps it eternal. No matter how life went on, the movie stays the same, forever.