The vantage point “progresses from floor/desk-level to the rotunda of the library,” Bernstein tells me. “The shot, and the scene itself, as the overwhelming number of card-files are brought to the reporters — they got a bit more than they bargained for in all their cleverness — brilliantly illustrates both the monumental and granular challenges of real reporting, as well as the context of what is going on at the time in our own [Woodward and Bernstein’s] situation at that juncture.”
Woodward, by contrast, cites his favorite visual moments from the 1976 film as two scenes in which words are not only crucial, but also help define the character of Post Executive Editor Ben Bradlee (as played to Oscar-winning perfection by Jason Robards).
One of those moments, Woodward tells me, is when Bradlee indicates that The Post will stick by “the boys,” meaning his two young reporters. Another moment is when Bradlee looks at a story and says to Woodward and Bernstein: “You haven’t got it.”
“He did two things always: loyalty and raising the performance bar,” Woodward, the Post associate editor and bestselling author, says of Bradlee, who died in 2014.
This has been a banner year for journalism on film, with “Spotlight” winning the best picture Oscar, and that film’s writers, Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer, winning for best original screenplay. McCarthy has said in interviews that “All the President’s Men” was one of the touchstone films that influenced him, and the art of nuanced cinematography in service of story runs through both films like a shared chromosome.
In February, I dissected my favorite aspects of visual storytelling within “Spotlight.” Today, to mark its anniversary, I illuminate some of the visual artistry in “All the President’s Men”:
1. Bernstein’s favorite shot
The shot almost didn’t happen.
Fitting for the ways of Washington, Hollywood hit a roadblock, then exploited what political connections it had in this town. The “All the President’s Men” filmmakers were initially refused use of the Library of Congress, but they then reportedly got MPAA president Jack Valenti to use his juice. Yet once inside, the director and his D.P. faced a cinematic challenge: How to use the Jefferson Building and its soaring rotunda to maximum effect.
Every scene in the film is delivering information, even the rare ones with little dialogue. And the idea behind this shot, the late, great cinematographer Gordon Willis said, was to convey the sense that the two reporters were looking for “a needle in a haystack” of White House request card-files. So the ever-inventive Willis rigged a camera to a winch and a cable (with stabilizers and a remote-controlled focus system) to create the dramatic aerial pull-back.
The shot underscores the slow work of such dogged investigation by using a dissolve, as David Shire’s score intones a sense of methodical steadiness in the face of not only towering card stacks, but also towering institutions. And all the while, thanks to the ingenious sound design, the volume of the flip of the file cards (this film positively embraces all things paper) doesn’t naturally diminish despite the growing distance.
“All the President’s Men” derives much of its visual power by delving into dualities — from virtual split-screens to light-and-dark compositions — and here, as Bernstein notes, senses of the granular and the monumental are simultaneously conveyed.
Hard, true reporting can be the pebble that jams the spoked wheels of power — until finally, even the highest and mightiest are thrown over the handles of their own corrupted machine.
(Side note: I’ve long appreciated that this panopticon of a shot seems a visual metaphor for not only a wheel, but also a web — which is reminiscent of some Nixon cartoons of the era.)
2. Woodward’s favorite shot
Jason Robards was said to be initially reluctant to take the Bradlee role.
What could the veteran actor craft from what was given him in the script? All Robards first detected was a character who keeps asking and demanding and barking: “Where’s the [expletive] story?”
Robards was told that’s what The Post’s top editor does, and that the role was about exploring the ways in which to play that. And so we get to glimpse, with dramatic mastery, iconic scenes of inspired leadership and loyalty.
A year prior to “All the President’s Men,” Redford starred in Sydney Pollack’s CIA thriller “Three Days of the Condor,” and in that film, Redford’s character is described as someone whose eyes don’t look away much, and they don’t miss anything.
Those words can be used to describe the Bradlee character’s vision in “All the President’s Men.” His scenes are shot so that even when his legs are characteristically raised in a pose of easy power, it is his eyes that telegraph how swiftly he sizes up what is before him — and what is still missing.
It’s worth noting, too, how what we see on the screen played out in real life. Woodward’s deep appreciation of Bradlee was readily apparent decades after the crucible of Watergate.
I had met the two men separately in the old Post building, but had never encountered them together till one summer night several years ago atop the Watergate Hotel, beneath the top floor’s exposed pipes that seemed to need a few plumbers. It was a Post-hosted event to mark the 40th anniversary of Watergate. And toward the end of the moderated talks, Woodward kissed Bradlee atop the head after telling us what an honor it was to work for this legendary editor.
It was the affection of a man who so profoundly appreciated, in his own words, “loyalty and raising the performance bar.”
3. The light and dark of truth
Gordon Willis, the legendary director of photography, was affectionately known as “the Prince of Darkness.” But as he himself used to say, what matters is not simply the shadows, but rather the interplay of light and dark.
What can we detect, and what truths are yet to be revealed from out of those shadows? Willis had masterfully painted such narrative dynamics before, in films like “Klute” (his first teaming with Pakula) and “The Parallax View” (their second teaming) and the first two releases (at that point) in “The Godfather” trilogy. So it’s hard to imagine a cinematographer who was better equipped to tackle the light-and-dark dualities within the “All the President’s Men” palette.
Willis would call the bright, wall-to-wall fluorescence of a newsroom “oppressive,” but cinematically that functions beautifully, as if whatever is discovered by reporters can here be scientifically held and examined, like lab samples, beneath the harsh interrogation light of truth.
Conversely, Pakula and Willis rendered Woodward’s parking garage as a structurally similar setting — note the rows of columns and ceiling squares — yet where truth is revealed only gradually, largely obscured and reluctant to be brought out into the light.
Several years before Mark Felt was revealed to have been Woodward’s “Deep Throat” source, I asked Hal Holbrook — the actor who portrayed agent Felt in this film — whether he had any inkling who the real-life Deep Throat might be.
“Standing there in that parking garage,” Holbrook replied with a warm, wry drawl, “I was literally and figuratively in the dark.”
4. Filling a tight space
Willis used to say that the job of filmmakers is not to re-create reality, but rather to represent it. And deciding how to create fictive compositions for real-life events is the stuff of art.
As part of that mission, Pakula and Willis loved to make use of tight physical spaces. Interviews in which one person is so reluctant to reveal information is not a cooperative two-shot; instead, the interview subject is cornered, and often top-lit like an interrogation.
And so “All the President’s Men,” like its visual spawn “Spotlight,” makes use of staircases as areas that obscure but also provide steps toward revealing the truth. And walls and doorways are employed to convey compositions of tension and conflict. These are the interior shots of the soul.
5. The visual call
How in the world do you dramatize a long phone call — let alone five or six minutes of phone time at a desk? At least without resorting to too-frequent Hollywood hyperbole and theatrics?
Pakula and Willis, as masters of restraint, chose to depict striking dualities within some of the newsroom shots, which otherwise might read as visually flat.
When the Woodward character makes calls to track the link between a CREEP check and a Watergate burglar (in a wealth of dialogue per William Goldman’s Oscar-winning script), the filmmakers decide to do so much more with the frame by creating a competing dual focus.
As Woodward is chasing a story no one cares about, people in the newsroom huddle near a TV to hear a different news story. Woodward is uncovering revelations, yet it is all still too opaque for even his colleagues to yet care. (This striking effect is heightened by Willis’s use of a split diopter, which allows both the closeup and the action in the distance to remain simultaneously in focus.)
Willis once said an assistant of his was booted from the movie over his fear of attempting this technically tricky shot. Yet within the art of cutting-edge cinematography, Willis, like the reporter in his lens, was making history.
6. The visual callback
If a reporter’s phone call is a challenge to dramatize, how much more so the simple act of reporters typing?
The filmmakers brilliantly employ a virtual split-screen by placing a TV set in the foreground, as the electronic medium shares a triumphant Nixon moment.
Meanwhile, the Post reporters continue the old-media act of typing, the steady churn of keys marching undaunted toward the truth — a direct visual callback to a similar “split-screen” in the film with a televised Nixon in the foreground.
“All the President’s Men” celebrates the act of investigative journalism as corrective protector and weapon. Typewriter keys, in closeup, attain the power of a strike force, each stroke a cannon shot for truth.
This, as conveyed through the art of deft visual storytelling, is the impact of capital-J Journalism.