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ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN is a fastpaced, absorbing film of great technical accuracy, fine performances and a generally ethical approach to journalism and politics. Watching it more or less out of any larger context, it is equally solid as entertainment, information and morality. The only questions left that a viewer can think about afterwards are what kind of film All The President's Men set out to be and how far such a treatment does justice to the events being portrayed.
The film, of course, deals with the earliest weeks after Watergate and fails to recover any of the uncertainty and darkness of that time. The excerpts of TV appearances by Nixon, Agnew, Kleindienst, and other Humpty Dumpties about to fall are simply funny; their straight-faced optimism and flat denials sound ludicrous. The power to inspire fear and loathing has gone out of these men. So Woodward and Bernstein seem to be working against paper tigers that we know don't stand a chance. This curious impression is strengthened by the fact that the "bad" characters appear only on TV news clips. All the President's Men is something of a morality play, yet the only characters portrayed in the film are entirely "good" (Bernstein and Woodward and their City Editor), or at worst, men divided in their loyalties--the bookkeeper for Maurice Stans interviewed in her home, Hugh Sloan who resigns under his wife's threat to leave him if he doesn't ship out of CREEP, and most important of all, Deep Throat himself. The Watergate Five appear only as silhouettes, Hunt and Liddy not at all. Donald Segretti comes off as pathetic and sophomoric rather than a pernicious master of dirty tricks. The heavies--Haldeman, Ehrlichmann, Colson, Kleindienst, Magruder and of course Nixon--aren't there at all, except in the news clips. Thus one of the most enjoyable episodes in the film is Woodward's midnight phone call to John Mitchell, in which the former attorney general threatens to "put Katie Graham's teat through a wringer" if they print their story. Yet the men responsible for Watergate and the cover-up come off as frightened men making ludicrous mistakes rather than the kind of people who seriously threatened to warp this country's government out of shape. There is no counter-balance to the sympathetic, all-conquering team of reporters except in the nebulous, off-stage presence of Richard Nixon.
Save for this pale ghost, Woodward (Robert Redford) and Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) have no competition in this film. Perhaps that made the director over-confident. No attempt is made to dip beneath the surface of these men or their relationship, and, perhaps, there is nothing beneath the surface. But we never really know how much these men are driven by personal ambition, how much by moral vigor, how much by pure thrill of the chase. Do they even like each other? They never discuss the wider significance of the case or their handling of it, only tactics and never strategy. Deep Throat provides some of the comments that put events in context, but the film really tells us little about whether or not Woodward and Bernstein had to be extraordinary men to do what they did, or simply extraordinary reporters.
The film also tells us little about the role and modus operandi of the press. We see some of the infighting that goes on in the editor's meeting at The Washington Post, as the metro editor struggles to keep the Watergate story for his department rather than let it slip away to the national news department. For most of the film--in the absence of any really bad guys--most of the audience's rancor and frustration is directed at the brass on The Post who keep insisting on more facts, more names and more confirmations. But in the end we are led to see these men as crusty old newsmen in the Front Page tradition, driving their cub reporters hard but backing them to the hilt in a confrontation with outsiders. Ben Bradlee (Jason Robards) bears the brunt of these cliches. He puts Bernstein and Woodward under the most pressure--one of the best scenes in the movie comes when, the morning after a story linking Haldeman to the break-in has been denied by every conceivable source, he screams out "Woodstein!" across the newsroom and, for once in the film, the room becomes deadly quiet. Jimmy Stewart or Henry Fonda might have been able to deliver Bradlee's final speech ("All that's at stake is the First Amendment and maybe the future of this country.") but it doesn't quite come off.
IN GENERAL, the end of All The President's Men is disappointing. In close-ups of a wire-machine we are shown the great news stories that followed the early period of the investigation documented here--the convictions of Hunt and Liddy, the sentencing of Segretti, and the resignation of Nixon. Somehow the effect is something like the announcements of the sentences that used to be read out at the end of Dragnet. It is good to be reminded where Woodward and Bernstein led the nation, good to be reminded that these men werehumbled. But in a sense that was an entirely different story. It is perhaps naive for the film to imply that all that was needed to bring the President down were newspaper articles, however hard-hitting. In the end, All The President's Men, rather than telling a whole inside story, seems like just another piece of evidence, part of one of those long, fascinating congressional hearings. Thus the climax of All The President's Men is reduced to the moral decision of one man, and the focus of suspense comes down to the instant of silence in a darkened underground garage when Deep Throat decides the time has come to tell all he knows.
As the spectacle of Watergate unfolded before our eyes two years ago--in court appearances, press conferences and Congressional committee investigations--it was gripping enough to require no dramatization. With the cynicism of hindsight, we may realize now that Sam Erwin was a bucket of North Carolina hogwash and John Sirica less than a man on a white horse and Sam Dash far from the best lawyer around. But at the time, events needed neither the sugaring of attractive personalities like Dustin Hoffman's nor the spicing of palace corrider gossip such as we taste in The Final Days.
THE MYTHOLOGIZATION of Watergate was instantaneous. We are now in a second stage of it, what might be called the mythologization of the inside and the insider's point of view. In the first stage, the heroes were the men who bore the brunt of the investigation in the public spotlight--the judges, prosecutors, crusading congressmen and even, to some, the System itself. Now we are being told about the Inner Mysteries of Watergate--though I imagine there are at least six more veils to go. The new heroes are the men on the inside, who had little to do with the public spectacle--pre-eminently Woodward and Bernstein.
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