Monday, February 26, 2018
The Trick Is Not Minding
Kenneth Dahlberg’s neighbor’s wife really was kidnapped, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. She was Virginia Piper, wife of Harry Piper, chained to a tree for two nights until a million dollar ransom was paid by her husband who was then informed of her whereabouts. Most of the money was never recovered. This is an extremely abridged version of what happened which in ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN becomes a mere passing comment that Kenneth H. Dahlberg of Minnesota, sounding somewhat distressed, makes to Bob Woodward during that epic phone conversation about the check cashed by one of the Watergate burglars. It’s one of those tiny details that the film brushes past which makes me think of the bit later where Woodward doesn’t express surprise at what’s happening behind the closed doors he and Carl Bernstein are repeatedly knocking on, a scene no one ever remembers even if it’s maybe one of the few reaches for theme the film makes outside of its journalistic goals. The point, the moment seems to say, is that the surprise doesn’t matter. You just have to accept it and keep probing because the answers are there. And they will reveal themselves. The lights come on eventually.
ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN is a miracle of all the right elements coming together, a miracle from that holy cinematic year of 1976 when it was one of the Best Picture nominees to lose to ROCKY. Not only is it a film without a wasted frame there isn’t a moment which is not awash in total clarity and awareness in its pursuit of the story. Whatever the process was throughout the making of the film it not only somehow kept straight how much we needed to know, it laid bare the process of how the story that was being pursued became clear, fixated on the goal and like its two lead characters always aware of what the next question needed to be. Every moment is important, even the asides, even the blind alleys since they are a reminder that there are always going to be those blind alleys. In his review at the time Vincent Canby called Alan J. Pakula’s film “the thinking man’s JAWS” and it’s just as compulsively rewatchable. There isn’t a single dull moment which was certainly a concern at the time, way back when the fear was that everyone knew everything about Watergate already so what was the point of even making it. The film answered that question, presenting what happened with such skill and focus without stopping for a moment, the drive that is evident in its two lead characters becoming more clear with each scene, each time they sit back down at the typewriter.
Over 40 years after it was made there are still few other films that balance plot and character as intricately as ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN (screenplay by William Goldman based on the book by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward) as it follows reporters Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) of the Washington Post investigating the Watergate burglary and coming to understand very quickly just how deep the scandal goes. If you’re Steven Soderbergh you’re already watching it several times a year as indicated by his annual list posted every January of what he viewed the previous twelve months. If you’re anyone else you probably should be watching it several times a year. I’ve done it myself. Just about every minute of screentime propels things forward and yet it becomes a character piece anyway as we watch Woodward the straight arrow Republican (the news of which becomes a double take glance between him and his partner) and Bernstein the wiry ladies’ man, each of them determined in their own way to find this story together. Removing all conflict over how the two reporters are going to work together in about ten seconds flat it locates the characterizations in their actions as they obsessively scribble down those notes during phone calls, in the way they keep their eyes fixated on the subject not wanting to move for fear they’ll stop talking, never bothering to explain what drives them in speeches we don’t care about. The way they keep asking those questions even as somebody says they don’t want to talk anymore is all we need to know and the debates they have with each other lays out each man’s own basic approach to logically coming up with the answers, searching for where they can be found through each new deduction. Along with their sheer sense of focus it’s a film that never gets distracted by anything in its peripheral vision.
It’s an unrelentingly addictive film to watch, the way it jumps into things and refuses to stop while still maintaining a calm and collected tone all the way through. “The trick is not minding,” Hal Holbrook’s Deep Throat says during his first meeting with Woodward while telling a story about G. Gordon Liddy holding his hand over a candle at a party which is more or less a direct lift from LAWRENCE OF ARABIA and the cribbing of that line almost serves as a reminder of how, much as this comes from what happened, it still had to be figured out exactly what story was going to be told. Reading through the book is a reminder that the facts are the same, which they have to be, but it still needed a structure to provide clarity and the film finds it, keeping close to the journalistic roots and never taking its eyes off the big story. That particular Deep Throat line isn’t from the book or real life, “Follow the money” isn’t either, and actually much of his dialogue seems to have been invented for the film where what he has to say is considerably more clever. It’s not the only alteration without tampering with the reality of what happened so putting aside the history and politics it’s equally clear how much ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN is a near-perfect model of how to adapt a book, any book, even with the audacity of concluding the narrative at roughly the halfway point of the source material (not counting a few scenes from the second half which get moved up in the chronology) before the scandal really takes hold with the public but also in terms of how well the film parses out the sheer mountain of information that needs to be told.
There’s no love interest who comes in for a few scenes to argue about why the two men are so devoted to their work and any hints dropped that Bernstein is a ladies’ man aside those McDonald’s wrappers scattered around the table during their bickering lunches are more important than any outside life, only guys like Jack Warden and Martin Balsam playing Post editors Harry Rosenfeld and Howard Simons to bounce off of to remind them not to fuck things up. Each scene tells us something new whether it’s about the scandal or the sheer determination of these guys to figure out the right questions to ask and how to get in through the door, whether Woodward’s gamble of how to get the right name out of the bookkeeper or the way Bernstein gets part a secretary to get into a delayed appointment down in Florida (in a sequence apparently written by Carl Bernstein and Nora Ephron). The forward momentum helps the film move flawlessly from scene to scene even with what seems like some occasional dialogue that’s been dubbed in added after the fact to help scotch tape over a few transitions and clarify who certain people are but so what. As much as the film brushes past certain pieces of detail that it doesn’t have time for, considering how much information needs to be laid out so we even partly follow what’s going on it always comes up with the right answers.
But as much as every single one of the story decisions were correct it says something that in William Goldman's acceptance speech at the Oscars the first person he thanked was cinematographer Gordon Willis whose brilliant work transformed the film into something beyond a simple newspaper story with its shadows providing that low hanging cloud which always seems to hang over D.C. through the film. Willis wasn’t even nominated, passed over for the likes of the KING KONG remake and LOGAN’S RUN (I like both of those but come on…) but it’s impossible to imagine the film without those layers that Willis brought to it, providing that extra level of clarity to Woodward and Bernstein in the harsh light of the Washington Post trying to enter the darkness where all the answers are, Deep Throat waiting in that garage in the middle of the night with the answers he won’t fully reveal. With the camera pulling up from them going through those cards in the Library of Congress, tiny figures lost in the weeds, Willis and the darkness he brings to each moment provides the cagey emotion of the film to go with Pakula’s levelheaded cool providing a sense of unrelenting intellect with that 70s paranoia backed up by the low hum of the score by David Shire which seems directly attached to Woodward and Bernstein’s brainwaves to remind them that something’s going on, only they don’t know what, only that they have to keep following the leads.
Everybody here is working at their absolute best and the hushed tones that linger keep things unsettled just enough Pakula knows how much emotion to let seep in with the quiet anguish felt in Jane Alexander’s “If you guys could get John Mitchell, that would be beautiful.” His view of each scene serves as counterpoint to the determination of these guys and there’s a calm in the air in the way through each scene with the single take Dahlberg phone call one of the most deservedly famous of them, Redford prominent in the frame as the camera slowly moves in on him away from the background where the newsroom is converged around a TV with the breaking news, McGovern dropping Eagleton from the ticket which the movie doesn’t make clear until a later headline is spotted but it doesn’t matter as far as Woodward is concerned and we zoom in, everything else becomes irrelevant as the real story becomes clear. It’s one of the most subtly bravura scenes in a film that doesn’t waste a single moment, every shot matters, as it presents Woodward and Bernstein as two small figures in these massive Washington establishments, the reality of the world combined with a stylization in the way it’s presented, familiar DC landmarks always nearby as they would be in real life, forcing them to do this work literally in the shadows of the men they’re investigating. The style transforms this from simple docudrama almost into a form of deceptive realism, the camera racing alongside them in the newsroom and the legendary dolly shot as Woodward exits the parking garage in the middle of the night, unaware of where Deep Throat has gone to, leading into him in an early morning parking lot which is some ways doesn’t make logical sense—after all, has Woodward just been wandering the streets all night—but places him existentially alone with what he knows in the middle of this city, almost too afraid to face the truth but remaining absolutely determined. For all the 70s realism it still feels like a jolt to remember that the Washington Post newsroom was recreated on the studio lot in Burbank (art direction that won an Oscar, over the likes of LOGAN’S RUN) and there’s nothing in the film that shouts backlot with the exception of the rearscreen projection in the driving scenes, not that I care, and that particular aesthetic of the decade is fairly soothing to look at now anyway.
The president’s men of the title are mostly unseen, phantoms always lingering nearby, occasionally spotted on television like Ron Ziegler slamming the post could be said by someone today, pretty much word for word, except maybe he displays better vocabulary skills. All powerful at the time but, as Deep Throat reminds Woodward, not very bright guys. And mostly terrified, even down to Ken Clauson worried about whatever happened in Sally’s apartment getting out and jeopardizing his wife and family and dog and cat. Woodward and Bernstein know that something is there, it just takes time to figure out what and ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN takes its time with those debates in Bradlee’s office about if they’ve gotten the story, not to mention what exactly the story really is or if it’s too thin. As well as trying to decide if they’ve knocked on enough of those doors. All these years later, the world may be considerably different and the crimes taking place at the moment may go far beyond anything that happens here. Separate from the Watergate crimes, there may also be a problem with any movie that happens to star Dustin Hoffman. The main story of the film ends on a fuck up, with the real ending coming via the teletype epilogue, but it feels right since in the 70s fucking up was the way things often went anyway. Considering everything that had already happened by the early 70s the eventual victory was almost irrelevant as the mention of settlement negotiations to end the Vietnam War in an editorial meeting reminds us. Seeing those two guys back at work to get the story is what matters. Because you’re going to fuck up. The trick, however, is not minding. You have to become what those guys on the other side already are. Only maybe, hopefully, the good version. And if it means acquiring a taste for the jugular, so be it.
Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman become as one in playing Woodstein, as they’re dubbed, and it’s a couple of the best sheer movie star performances off all time as far as I’m concerned. It’s the best of each of their strengths, Redford’s innate laid back quality combined with the intensity the grows in Woodward making him click for me here more than any other film, zeroing in on the precise moments when Woodward finds the next piece of the puzzle while Hoffman’s jittery quality matches that perfectly, always looking for the next cigarette while walking ahead of his partner, calming down at just the right moments to get the answers that are needed and ready to fight but still willing to listen. They’re matched up against the all-powerful focus of Jason Robards in his Oscar winning performance as Ben Bradlee, always looking for the right answer to what he demands of people, never wanting anything but the right answer to what he asks, only wanting to be absolutely sure. Jack Warden, Martin Balsam and especially Hal Holbrook as Deep Throat are all phenomenal but there’s also the calm defiance of Jane Alexander (the film’s other acting nomination) as the bookkeeper, the smiling Robert Walden as Segretti, Lindsay Crouse, Stephen Collins, Ned Beatty, Polly Holliday, Valerie Curtin, Penny Fuller, John McMartin as the Post foreign editor calmly laying out the other way to look at things and the voice of John Randolph as John Mitchell.
The opening shot just after the 70s Warner logo fades away makes it clear—the typewriter is the weapon. The word is the bullet. And at the end, when Nixon is being sworn in, the typing continues, the only weapon they know. I miss working on a typewriter, without a doubt the most beautiful weapon that will ever be known to mankind, but that’s the way it goes. There’s anger out there right now. I feel it. It’s impossible to keep from thinking about it sometimes along with the simmering awareness over how certain people have tried to get away with such things. My sister, who once worked in the journalism world in D.C, lives in Bethesda and every time I visit I bring the disc of ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN to have with me, close enough to where it all takes place that I imagine it every time we pass a parking garage. I’m not sure how many times I’ve seen the film by now. And as I watch it now yet again I think about all the crimes that are happening right now that barely even need to take place behind closed doors anymore, practically out in the open and waiting for someone to do something about it. Anyway, a lot of the time lately I think we’re fucked. But I still hope not. Those newspapers matter even now and journalism matters, even if the journalists don’t always seem to realize that. The pulse of ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN is one that remains steady and calm as I watch it once again, trying to breathe through these awful days and remember that there’s always a hope, like an injection to somehow keep me going.