All the President's Men(Warner Home Video, 2.21.2006)
Watergate is the most fascinating historical event of my lifetime. Seeing how a seemingly insignificant break-in at Democratic National Headquarters on June 17, 1972 would slowly spin into a web of lies that brought down the Richard M. Nixon administration and sent many of its leaders to prison is high drama. The Congressional hearings into the cover-up were wonderful television.
Long before these hearings began, however, the national news media were generally willing to ignore the ethical and constitutional implications of Watergate because of cynicism, laziness, and fear. It is no exaggeration to say that if Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein had not been so diligent, the Watergate scandal would have been less dramatic.
Alan J. Pakula's All the President's Men is one of the best films ever about politics or journalism, if not the best. It's a classic David vs. Goliath tale because Woodward (Robert Redford) and Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) are young nobodies at the "Post," given only routine assignments until they stumble into Watergate. William Goldman's brilliant screenplay presents the reporters as flawed, with their progress in uncovering a vast conspiracy frequently slowed by roadblocks and mistakes. Yet they keep going because of their gritty determination to follow the story wherever it leads them. The contrast between the minimalist style of Redford and Hoffman's Method approach helps greatly in understanding the protagonists.
A no-frills DVD of All the President's Men was released in 1997, but Warner Home Video has finally, in honor of the film's thirtieth anniversary, created a splendid two-disc special edition. The centerpiece is the commentary by Redford, also the film's producer. Beginning by pointing out that the famous opening tight shot of typewriter keys hitting a sheet of paper was his idea, Redford explains how the film was a true collaborative effort between Pakula, cinematographer Gordon Willis, production designer George Jenkins, the two stars, and the two reporters.
Redford delights as much in recalling the technical obstacles Willis, the era's greatest DP, had to overcome as he does in calling attention to the several places where he and Hoffman are improvising. An ad-lib such as Woodward's asking Bernstein, while in an elevator, if there is nowhere he doesn't smoke works primarily because of Redford's pause and look of disgust before delivering the line. Redford describes both Hoffman and Bernstein as "aggressively entertaining." Only once, surprisingly, does he stress a contribution by Goldman, only the man who wrote Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and helped make him a star.
Redford recounts his difficulty in contacting Woodward while Watergate was unfolding and says he convinced the reporters to make their book "All the President's Men" focus more on their efforts than the scandal itself. Woodward confirms this account in one of the extras. While refraining from condemning the Republicans of the seventies, Redford calls attention several times to parallels between Watergate and the current political climate. He bemoans how the media have "degenerated" over the last thirty years.
The disc incudes several documentaries narrated by Hal Holbrook (who plays Deep Throat/Mark Felt), include one about the making of the film with comments by Redford, Hoffman, Goldman, Willis, Woodward, Bernstein, and Jane Alexander, who plays a source. We also get a documentary about the reporters with comments by Jonathan Alter, Walter Cronkite, and Oliver Stone, as well as a profile of Felt, Woodward's guide to the truth.
This generous set also includes a making-of short from 1976 with comments by Pakula, a 1976 appearance on Dinah Shore's talk by Jason Robards -- who won his first Oscar for playing "Post" editor Ben Bradlee -- and trailers of other Pakula films. The widescreen transfer seems a bit crisper than the 1997 DVD but, because Willis was aiming for a documentary effect, many scenes have some deliberate graininess.
In addition to Robards, Willis and Jenkins won Oscars and the film also won for sound. How both this film and Taxi Driver could have lost the best picture award to Rocky and how Pakula could have lost to John G. Avildsen (Scorsese wasn't even nominated) provides yet more proof of how bogus the Academy Awards are. The film's chances may also have been affected by the boredom with the scandal claimed at the time by many Americans, who refused to grasp the historical and entertainment value of Watergate. -- Michael Adams