It’s been several years since I last saw All the President’s Men, the gripping dramatization of the investigation into the Watergate burglary – an investigation that led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon. But in the years since I saw it, the world has continued to change, and often in ways that make the film all the more fascinating. The collapse of the journalism industry, the evolution (and de-evolution) of presidential candidates, the changes in society – all of these and more contribute to the fascinating “time capsule” nature of All the President’s Men that only increase its appeal and greatness.
Even without that appeal, though, All the President’s Men is an undeniable masterpiece, full stop. It’s an intelligent, thoughtful film, one that follows every single step of this investigation, and follows its heroes as they knock on doors, write ledes, make phone calls, meet with editors, chase down sources, and just plain work. It’s a film about process, one that treats its audience like adults and expects them to keep up. There are no explosions, no contrived drama – just interviews, conversations, discussions, and an unblinking look at these men as they do their work. And it works – the film’s strength comes in its belief that its audience cares about this process, cares about the threads being followed, and is invested in the drama.
Mind you, that’s not to say that All the President’s Men is flat or unstylish. Watching it on the big screen, it’s hard not to notice the film’s use of shadows and darkness throughout, following our heroes as they plunge into the shadows of a conspiracy and try to drag it into the cleansing light of the newsroom. (It’s also no surprise for fans of 70’s film to realize that the cinematography is helmed by Gordon Willis, the “Prince of Darkness,” whose work on shadows and darkness helped to make films like The Godfather famous.) It’s a simple visual trick, but am incredibly effective one, especially when the shadows are as rich and black as they are here. (Those famous parking garage scenes are jaw-dropping on the big screen, as the faces lurk just out of sight.) But there’s so many other wonderful touches to behold – look at that long, unbroken take as Redford interviews a key witness over two different phone calls, for instance. And, of course, there’s that rich, naturalistic 70’s style that every actor embodies (and which I love).
And, of course, there’s the intelligence of the film, which is undeniable. How great it is to have a film like this that moves at a breakneck pace, tosses out a slew of names without taking a break, navigates the complicated hierarchies of politics, and doesn’t hold the viewer’s hand, instead expecting them to keep up. Yes, the film was covering very recent history at the time (insanely recent history, if we’re being honest; this had to be a still raw wound as they filmed it, and little better when it was released), but even by that standard, All the President’s Men is a film made for a thoughtful audience, and one that can keep up – and that makes the film all the better.
But I want to go back to that sense of time and place that the film evokes, because almost more than anything else, I found myself swept up in that this time. It was a time when journalism mattered and earned respect, rather than the dying system we’re watching collapse now – and more than that, it was a time when journalism had a voice and a willingness to call out horrors, instead of being driven by ratings and sensationalism to the degree we are now. There’s also that joy in seeing a time before we truly began to turn our backs on the political process and view it all as the corrupted and broken system we often perceive today. And more than that, it’s a window into a pinnacle of American film, maybe the best decade the medium ever had – a time when political, smart, adult films like this weren’t just being made – they were popular, acclaimed, and successful. And when they’re this good, it’s not hard to understand why.