Tuesday, 28 February 2012

All the President's Men (1976)

Dir. Alan J. Pakula
Starring: Dustin Hoffman, Robert Redford, Jason Robards, Jack Warden

All the President’s Men is not so much about the corridors of power as it is about the darkened car parks of power. The office complexes of power. The suburban homes of power. For anyone who loves conspiracy theories, this film is a must see.

The film deals with a conspiracy and a cover-up. And it is, of course, a true story. Five men were arrested in the offices of the Democratic National Committee on the night of 17th June 1972. This could have been put down to a simple bungled burglary and forgotten about. But rookie Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward smelt a rat. If the suspects had not made any phone calls then how did a high-powered lawyer know to get there to represent them? With his colleague Carl Bernstein they began to follow the trail. The trail led to individuals within CREEP (the Committee to RE-Elect the President – the ‘President’ being Richard Nixon of the Republican Party). Campaign funds were clandestinely used to pay the burglars (all ex-CIA assets). Those campaign funds were overseen by a group of powerful individuals, some inside the White House itself – including former Attorney General John Mitchell and White House Chief of Staff H. R. Haldeman. This money was used by a prolonged campaign to undermine Nixon’s Democratic Party opponents through dishonest, immoral and illegal means that involved elements of the FBI, CIA and Justice Department: “ratfucking”. Through diligent reporting and chasing down every lead they come across Woodward and Bernstein are able to print the truth. The film ends with the series of headlines that followed their scoop – guilty pleas, criminal charges and, finally, the resignation of President Nixon.

The other reason conspiracy nuts should see the film is to witness one very simple truth. “Forget the myths the media’s created about the White House”, Woodward’s contact Deep Throat (Hal Holbrooke – last seen as Ron in Into the Wild) says: “The truth is, these are not very bright guys, and things got out of hand.” This was a major cover-up by people whose asses were directly on the line, and they couldn’t keep a lid on it. How likely is it that they could hide the existence of, say, extraterrestrial technology all these years then? And the irony is that Nixon didn’t have to go undermining his Democratic opposition; they were doing a good enough job of undermining themselves. In ’72 Nixon beat McGovern by a landslide. As Scott, the Post’s Foreign Editor comments: “Why would the Republicans do it? McGovern’s self-destructed just like Humphrey, Muskie, the bunch of them. I don’t believe this story. It doesn’t make sense”. What comes out, however, is that the Democratic candidates’ implosions may have been orchestrated by those close to a President who was at one point lagging in the polls behind Democratic front-runner Edmund Muskie. “A year before Nixon wasn’t slaughtering Muskie, he was running behind Muskie, before Muskie self-destructed.” “If he self-destructed…”

This strikes at the very heart of the American dream. Nixon later claimed that “If the President does it, that means it’s not illegal”. Au contraire. What the Watergate scandal exposed was an Executive that felt itself above the laws of the nation. By equating opposition to the President with treason against the state the Executive could morally justify lies, forgery, burglary, bugging, misuse of government funds and employees. The President is supposed to be the best of the United States. The Watergate scandal exploded that myth. If one of the central pillars of what makes America great in its peoples’ eyes is corrupt, how does that reflect on the rest? When the two reporters are walking up the road to visit Sloan (Stephen Collins) at home there is a comment made about the nice, neat little suburban streets: “It’s hard to believe something’s wrong with some of those little houses.” When the White House is sullied, all houses in the U.S.A are sullied too. People do not like it when their dreams are exploded. But Woodward and Bernstein’s crusade had to take place. “Nothing’s riding on this”, they are told by their fire-breathing editor Ben Bradlee (Jason Robards), “except the First Amendment to the Constitution, the freedom of the press, and maybe the future of the country”.

The doubles playing between Woodward and Bernstein is captured beautifully by Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman. They may not particularly like each other, but they work together perfectly. The two actors memorised each others’ lines so that they could butt in and overlap each other seamlessly. They are perfectly in sync. In one scene Bernstein flings a cookie to the typing Woodward; Woodward catches it and deposits it, before resuming typing. That’s how in the groove they are with each other. Throughout the acting is naturalistic, with occasional interruptions like an aeroplane flying overhead. Some characters never appear on screen, only being heard down the receiver of a telephone. The ensemble cast play it like a documentary – which to a certain extent it is. The offices of the Washington Post were recreated on set and the stars hung around the real newsrooms to get a feel for the tempo of the place. This is despite the outlandish subject matter – dark deeds in high places, clandestine meetings in parking lots, “your lives may be in danger”… In fact, I would say that only once does the film stray from this naturalism, when Woodward is leaving a rendezvous with Deep Throat. He trots out down a darkened alleyway, the music builds, he whips around suddenly… and no one is there. As a means to heighten tension, very effective; as veracity, somewhat over-played in my viewpoint.

"Have you tried turning it off and turning it back on again?"
Hoffman and Redford are cast against type...

The film only takes the story of Watergate so far. It takes it up to the point where Nixon is over-whelmingly re-elected to the Presidency, where Woodward and Bernstein can finally prove the link to Haldeman (“the second most important man in this country”), and where Bradley gives them the go-ahead to publish. The fall-out thereafter is covered by headlines on a teleprompter. But to cover the rest of the tale, the grand juries and indictments would have spun the movie out far too long, and would have veered away from the focus on the two reporters. All the President’s Men is over two hours long without this – though to be fair the story speeds along at a breathless pace. I would advise a certain level of familiarity with the events before sitting down to watch though, otherwise the roll-call of names and alphabet soup of acronyms can get pretty confusing. I had to search Wikipedia to find out what the ‘Canuck letter’ that torpedoed Muskie’s bid was – and who Muskie was, having never heard of him before. Suffice to say that the film is a great look at how dogged determination, forensic thoroughness and just a light sprinkling of hunches and bullshitting can turn a seemingly unpromising little event into the world’s most famous journalistic scoop.

What have I learnt about D.C.?
It has an awful lot of icky concrete architecture. Actually, to be honest I already knew that, as Washington is the first place on this cinematic odyssey where I have actually been in real life. With so much emphasis here on unconstitutional actions it reminded me somewhat of Walter Bagehot’s comments about the British (or, actually ‘English’) constitution. He talked about the constitution being “dignified and efficient”: the dignified bits (such as the monarchy or the House of Lords) are not very efficient, and the efficient bits (such as the Commons committees) are certainly not dignified! Here we have the trappings of a dignified government – the beautiful Mall with its eye-catching Washington Monument, the majestic dome of the Capitol rising beyond the trees, the pristine frontage of the White House. And in the background is the efficient world which really runs the country: anonymous sources in garages at midnight, deniable assets burgling offices after dark, press releases and “non-denial denials”, smears and innuendo. For the public at home the way things actually work and the way they want to think things work need to be kept separate lest the American political system fall into disrepute. Woodward and Bernstein link the two, and ever since the gloss has appeared a little chipped. Going to Washington I was awed by the grandeur of the monuments to American democracy, but its dark underbelly was always hovering at the corners of my eye-sight: expensive restaurants for the wining and dining of clients, security roadblocks and cameras reminding me of the surveillance state and power of the secret services, and the Watergate Complex itself, dirty, grey and cheap-looking.

Can we go there?
Oh, sure. The dignified aspects of Washington can be seen in the background of many shots – the Washington Monument, the Capitol, the White House. The only one that lets us have a good look at it, however, is the Library of Congress, where the reporters pore over lending requests. There is a lovely overhead shot that pulls away, leaving them seem small and insignificant in the grandeur of its reading room. It can be visited; if I found myself in Washington again I think I might follow in Woodward and Bernstein’s footprints (although they, admittedly, did not find what they were looking for here). There is the more sordid side to Washington too, as exemplified by the ugly Watergate Hotel. It really is a quite fantastically unaesthetic building. I was going to suggest that you might like to stay at the Watergate Hotel for the full experience: however, its website merely says that it is closed for renovations, and will reopen again in late 2009. Instead you could maybe try to lodge at the Hall at Virginia Avenue belonging to George Washington University opposite. Back in the day it was a Howard Johnson’s Motel and G. Gordon Libby used Room 419 as his look-out point (‘Base 1’).

Many of the scenes were filmed back on set at Warner Brothers Studios in Burbank, California. As I mentioned above, the offices of the Washington Post were recreated as faithfully as possible, even down to the exact same makes of office furniture and the shipping across from the Post’s real offices of container loads of workplace detritus. Certain exterior scenes took place in California too. Donald Segretti’s apartment is in Marina del Rey. The Dade County Justice Building in Miami is actually Los Angeles City Hall. And the car park where Bob Woodward meets Deep Throat is actually belongs to ABC Television; it can be found at 2040 Avenue of the Stars, Century City.

Overall Rating: 3/5

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