Sometimes, the universe knows better than us puny humans. Case in point, the movie I'm discussing in this post. When I made my choices for the 2016 Blind Spot Series at the end of last year, I knew enough to know I needed to watch this film and penciled it in for August. It had just shown up on Netflix and I figured I would get to it in plenty of time. August rolled around and the streaming giant had removed the film from its service. I wasn't terribly worried about it because I had a back-up plan. I often go to the local library and browse the shelves in alphabetical order. That's my quirk, don't judge. Whenever I do, I quickly come across 1976's All the President's Men. It is literally always there. I confidently strode into the branch I always do, made a beeline for the movies and, of course, it wasn't there. I looked all over the shelves in case it was misplaced. Eventually, I went to the nearest computer and looked up their catalog to find out the impossible. It had been checked out. The only copy in the entire city's library system that was gathering dust for as long as I can remember had been checked out. Life went on, I picked a different movie. I was going to do another movie this month, but lo and behold, on another trip to the library a few days ago, there it was back in its familiar spot. I managed to get home from work a little earlier than usual and popped it in. Now, I'm writing the review for it. Appropriately, the first presidential debate of 2016 is playing on the television behind me. Coincidence? I think not.
Why did I pick it? I was born shortly before Watergate. Over the years, I've read some about it, and watched a number of news reports on the matter. I have amassed what I think is a solid working knowledge of what transpired. Despite growing up in the shadow of this world changing event, I didn't know anything about All the President's Men, aside from the title, until I really immersed myself in cinephilia about ten years ago. Since that time, I've been working my way through whatever films show up on the IMDb top 250. Well, working through it is too strong a word. I've been meandering through it is more accurate. I know, that list isn't the most prestigious, but it is a solid representation of what (mostly) regular folks consider to be some of the best movies ever made. At least, it used to be. They changed the formula and, now I'm not so sure. Still, it's a handy guide to use. This movie is always on the list, so I figured it's high time I finally checked it off the watchlist.
The film opens with the Watergate burglary, itself. Five men are caught in the act and arrested on the spot. Most see it as a minor event, including the Washington Post. They send a Bob Woodward (Robert Redford), a lesser regarded reporter, down to the courthouse to cover the story. Woodward notices some strange details about the case right away. In particular, the men have a rather expensive lawyer show up on their behalf without any of them calling him. It is also suspicious that one of the men is formerly of the CIA and they were in possession of electronic bugging equipment when they were arrested. Woodward thinks this could be something much bigger than anyone else imagines and presses his bosses to let him keep working the story. They reluctantly agree, but have another reporter join him - Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman). They begin peeling back the layers on this particular onion. The rest, as they say, is history.
As a procedural detailing the investigating of one of the most infamous and important events of the twentieth century, All the President's Men is endlessly fascinating. Watching the two men constantly run into and fight through the brick walls thrown up by those they talk to, all of whom have something to lose, is great theater. The story they're working on was still very large in the nation's rear view mirror when the film came out. Some forty plus years later, the outcome is fairly common knowledge. Typically, this would rob a movie of the air of mystery needed to carry it. This one successfully combats that issue by superbly conveying the fact its two protagonists are not just bewildered by the ever-deepening rabbit hole they've jumped into, but completely frustrated by it, as well. Their employers are frustrated. The difference between this and lots of other movies is how transparent it is about their immediate supervisor, Ben Bradlee (Jason Robards), being supportive, if doubtful, of his reporters while flatly lying to his superiors. The performance of Jason Robards comes across so smoothly he makes Bradlee one of the coolest bosses in cinematic history. Here is a guy who seems to never break a sweat, or raise his voice. He's supremely comfortable in his position, so much so that almost no matter what room he walks into he immediately kicks his feet up and sits back in the most relaxed pose ever. Writing it out like that, it sounds like too much. No one could be that cool, that easy-going, especially when their own job may be on the line. Robards makes it work. There is nothing forced about his performance.
Performances are key to this film. Robards is great, but hardly the most important player. Clearly our two reporters fill those spots. Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman are both amazing. What strikes me is how the difference between the personas of the two actors plays into how things play out. Redford embodies the term "movie star." He's got the Hollywood looks, comes across smooth, and is always well put together. Around the newsroom, we know he's one of the guys by his attire. He's got the blazer, khaki pants, dress shirt not buttoned at the top adorned with a loosened tie. However, there is clearly something different about him. Where everyone looks like they've slackened the knot on those ties as a minor way to wind down from a long day at work, he looks like he was styled that way for a photo shoot. By contrast, Hoffman is much more "normal." Obviously, he is also a movie star who has given some of the most iconic performances of all-time. He just doesn't come off that way. He comes off as a bit pushy and socially awkward. Physically, he always seems sweaty, disheveled, and a little desperate. As they try to pump various people for information, we see Redford's Woodward as the more successful of the two. He manages to disarm people even as he's hounding them with questions. Bernstein has his successes, as well, but they come as a result of being blatantly relentless. In either case, the guys only get so far until an important moment very late in the movie. Suddenly, Redford is the one who is sweaty, sloppily dressed, and clearly desperate. The next few minutes of this provides us with what is essentially the big action climax (though there is no "action" to speak of) and cracks things wide open. The implication is that that even though he was working hard all along, he had to really get down and dirty to get what he needs to give the story wings. True, Hoffman was already that way, but he needed Redford to get that way with him. It works brilliantly.
I'm extremely glad to have watched All the President's Men. It lives up to its reputation as one of the great procedurals of all-time, and arguably the best film ever made about journalism. The two stars carry the day, but terrific writing props them up every step of the way. As stated earlier, despite the fact we know how things turn out we still get the sense we're watching a mystery unravel. That's what keeps us interested. It's not that we don't know how it's going to turn out, because we do. It's that the people on the screen don't.
This post is part of the Blind Spot Challenge as put forth by Ryan @ The Matinee.
Other Movies in my 2016 Blind Spot Series