Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Tricky Dick

Film: All the President’s Men
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on middlin’-sized living room television

I’ve made the comment before that it’s sometimes difficult for me to get into a movie based on reality if I know how the real story turned out. Apollo 13, for instance, was a pretty good film, but I knew going in that everybody got back safely. To overcome this, a film really has to be something special. Fortunately, after last night’s debacle with Independence Day, All the President’s Men is really a tremendous movie.

Anyone my age or older, and quite a few people who are younger than I am, know the basics of the Watergate scandal. The first major political scandal that I have any recollection of, Watergate was the political downfall of Richard Nixon and many players from the Republican Party from the early 1970s. It’s also the source of the “–gate” suffix attached to virtually every political scandal for the last 40 years.

This film, based on the book by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, is not about the Watergate break in. What it is about is the investigation from the perspective of the two reporters. This is about breaking the story, tracking down the sources, and finding out as much information as possible to bring down the president and his cronies. They put together the pieces, dealing with shadowy meetings, and a wall of silence to uncover one of the biggest revealed cover-ups in American political history.

It’s difficult to know precisely how accurate this film portrayal is. It’s nice to see, however, that our two heroes, Woodward (Robert Redford) and Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) are not portrayed as Boy Scouts or as perfect. They have their problems and bad behaviors just like everyone else does, and in no small part, this is something that helps make the film work. Frequently, the two make guesses about things that they believe are right, and using those guesses, manage to trick information out of informants who categorically refuse to go on the record. Woodward claims to is possibly over cautious and paranoid. Bernstein chain smokes and takes chances.

Backing them up throughout are the brass at The Washington Post, specifically Harry Rosenfeld (Jack Warden), Howard Simons (Martin Balsam), and particularly Ben Bradless (Jason Robards). Woodward also gets a great deal of advice from a man known only as Deep Throat (Hal Holbrook), who does not provide actual information, but confirms or denies hunches, and continues to tell the two reporters to pursue the money and follow the trail as far up as it goes.

We live in a day an age when newspapers have ceased to be the way that people get their news. The day and age of the great newspaper man—like Ben Bradlee—are probably gone forever. But there was a time when a reporter (or two) with a notebook, a telephone, and a lot of determination could bring down an entire government.

Honestly, it’s difficult to believe that a story like this could be as engrossing as this one is. There’s corruption and illegal activity throughout, but there’s plenty here to watch. This is a gripping story, with twists and turns. The biggest surprise is that this happens in a film without a single gunshot, death, or even afistfight.

My favorite part throughout is the understated ending. Rather than a big show as convictions roll in, we get nothing but the teletype machine showing us what happened. Brilliant.

Great performances, and a great story. They don’t get a lot better. The backlash of the Watergate scandal was a dark time in American history. Everyone should know this story, and this is a great way to hear it.

Why to watch All the President’s Men: A true story where David really beat Goliath.
Why not to watch: You should already know the ending.

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