'President's Men': Absorbing, Meticulous ... and Incomplete
Sunday, April 4, 1976
Robert Redford's latest movie, "Three Days of the Condor," was a political espionage thriller that closed with an expression of faith in the integrity of the American press, symbolized by The New York Times. Or, to be precise, The New York Times Building. The tribute couldn't have been more sincere, but at least in Washington it struck audiences as inadvertently funny. Any hip moviegoer realized whose turn was next.
For all practical purposes, the conclusion of "Condor" was a trailer for Redford's next project, the movie version of "All the President's Men," the best-selling memoir by Washington Post investigative reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward. That gratuitous parting salute to The Times was about to blossom into a full-scale salute to The Post during its Finest Hour, the pursuit of the story behind the "third-rate burglary attempt" at the Watergate offices of the Democratic National Committee in the wee hours of June 17, 1972.
And blossom it has, in both irresistibly attractive and mildly disappointing respects. "All the President's Men," which opens Wednesday at the K-B Cinema and MacArthur following a world premiere benefit showing tonight at the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater, is an engrossing and enjoyable cinematic digest of the Woodstein chronicle, distinguished by a meticulous reproduction of the environment of the Post newsroom, an extraordinary measure of interest in (and open admiration for) the working methods of professional newsmen, and astute impersonations of Woodward, Bernstein and executive editor Ben Bradlee by Redford, Dustin Hoffman and Jason Robards, respectively.
Nevertheless, there's something emotionally limiting about the modest, careful, smooth craftmanship with which the original material has been transposed to the screen. This approach verges on being meticulous to a fault. It leads to an absorbing movie that somehow fails to evolve into a rousing, dramatically satisfying movie as well. "All the President's Men" lacks an expansive vision and an elemental spark of showmanship and inspiration.
Any film adaptation of a book as eventful and heavily populated as "All the President's Men" is bound to involve a considerable amount of foreshortening and transposition. In the process of condensing this material, the filmmakers have left themselves with a compact and fairly intelligible continuity, but it's a continuity without a dramatic shape, a serviceable outline rather than a stirring narrative.
The crucial misjudgement may be cutting off the scenario at roughly page 200 of a 336-page book. The movie ends in the wake of President Nixon's reelection, the beginning of a long dry spell for Woodstein and a nervewracking period of the Post's management, which found itself the target of several White House reprisals, the most absurd being the exclusion of reporter Dorothy McCardle from the press pools covering White House social events. The film shows us Redford and Hoffman typing diligently in the background while the President's triumph is glimpsed on a television set in the foreground. In a rapid epilogue we watch a series of leads rattle off the teletype, updating the Watergate saga to Nixon's resignation.
The visual and rhetorical flair of this denouement seems like a thin substitute for the emotional satisfaction that could be derived from extending the scenario to include the paper's vindication in the spring of 1973, when L. Patrick Gray's testimony at his confirmation hearings and James McCord's letter to Judge Sirica finally brought the Watergate cover-up out of the shadows. Unlike the book, which conveyed the impression that Woodward and Bernstein were riding an emotional roller coaster, the movie has no ups and downs, no highs and lows. Director Alan J. Pakula maintains such a level, quasi-documentary low key tone that one's feelings about this highly charged chapter of contemporary history never get out of neutral.
Pakula and Redford are reserved types to begin with, and it would be inappropriate to turn "All the President's Men" into a rabble-rouser. Still, this film is controlled by a quality of reserve that is virtually anti-dramatic. It's as if the filmmakers were so wary of corny or manipulative touches that they shied away from authentic and legitimate dramatic opportunities as well.
It might have seemed a little corny to end the film on a scene of triumph, but as a matter of fact, there were such scenes in the spring of '73. A truthful rendering of one or more of them would not have violated reality or history, and it would not necessarily be pandering to the audience to let them share the surge of feeling that people at the Post felt after the siege was lifted. For example, here's a moment of elation with a nice kicker, on the day Haldeman and Ehrlichman left the White House, excerpted from an article that appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review:
"Bradlee couldn't restrain himself. He strode into the Post's vast fifth-floor newsroom and shouted across rows of desks to reporter Bob Woodward, 'Not bad, Bob! Not half bad!' Howard Simons interjected a note of caution: 'Don't gloat,' he murmured, as Post staff members began to gather around. 'We can't afford to gloat!'"
An even more interesting effect might have emerged from Bradlee's announcement to an elated newsroom of the Pulitzer Prize for the Post's Watergate coverage. The complicating factor here was the initial anger felt by Woodward and Bernstein at the news that Bradlee had lobbied for an award made to the paper rather than the reporters exclusively. He persuaded them it was the right move after all, but the clash and acceptance would have made some points about human vanity, professional pride and the heady effect of celebrity that are beyond the scope of the film as presently conceived.
In a way, it seems futile to criticize filmmakers for what they've chosen not to depict, but the point is that this neglect often deprives movies of an indispensable element -- human interest. Within the stylistic limits and shortened time span the filmmakers have decided to use, "All the President's Men" is an exceptionally well-made film. It's simply impossible to suppress the feeling that a more involving and satisfying movie would have emerged from a less restrictive framework.