“All the President’s Men” is the finest movie ever made about journalism. It’s probably the only journalism movie that’s really about the thing that its about, and yet the movie stops just short of the moment when the hunch reporting that Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein were doing became an actual story, and then a scandal. The last shots of the movie are steely cold moments that echo the equally frigid, typewriter opening. The words quickly thunder onto the page at this point as Woodstein is left nearly eclipsed in the background.
Rather, this story of journalism isn’t about a valorous effort to snuff out corruption, a personal vendetta, about two people working together, an effort to prove oneself against all odds or to show that journalism can still matter. It’s about finding the needle in the haystack, about the speculation and possibility that arises from complete uncertainty. Almost like this year’s “Zero Dark Thirty,” it’s a movie about seeing in the dark.
Alan J. Pakula’s set pieces represent the absolute duldrums of thriller film making. Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford sit silently at desks and talk politely over the phone to get just one legitimate quote, they labor in painstaking searches at the Library of Congress to track down check out records for one government employee, they cross hundreds of names off lists as they walk door to door looking for information. They exert tireless effort to get nowhere, producing neither a Hollywood payoff or setback, but slowly their article climbs from the inside pages of the Washington Post to above the fold on A1. It shows how the work of journalism isn’t entirely the writing but the phone calls, hang-ups, editing, trial and error, inscrutable note taking (I can’t say I’ve written notes on bathroom napkins, but I challenge anyone to decipher my handwriting after most movie screenings) and non-information that force our hand to ask more questions and come up with some conclusive idea.
For how much people are aware of Deep Throat (Hal Holbrook) and his necessity to incriminating President Nixon, Pakula uses him very sparingly. Deep Throat only shows up a handful of times, and his tips are less concrete evidence than elaborate riddles designed to be a plot device. Take a look at the unreal lighting in the parking garage, this formless, empty space in which Redford’s excursions are like dream sequences designed to keep him on the right path.
Pakula builds more suspense in strings of phone calls and individual shots we can lose ourselves in. Watch as Woodward gets a name from Bernstein and tracks him down while juggling another source on the other line. The camera slowly tracks closer towards him over five minutes, and Redford even slips up in mentioning one of the names, but Woodward is on such a productive roll that no one seems to mind.
I think what I like best about “All the President’s Men” is a bit of an anachronism in terms of all other thrillers. If we didn’t know better about Watergate, this story would hardly stink like a scandal. There’s a scene where the worn and wrinkled newsroom veterans played by Martin Basalm and Jason Robards sit in a budget meeting and wonder if Woodstein’s story is really as important as it seems. Why is no one else following this lead? Why aren’t there more experienced reporters on this story? What if they’re wrong?
The movie works because it does what journalists do best and finds something amazing out of nothing at all.