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All the President’s Men

Soluble Tensions


What is it to be a president’s man? Is it to protect the president or to expose him; to do his bidding even when his actions are suspect; or to investigate them when we feel they are going against the national interest? All the President’s Men follows two figures, men who are not so much the president’s as the nation’s. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein are journalists who bring down the Republican president Richard Nixon after investigating the incidents around a break-in at Watergate, a Washington D.C. hotel-complex where the Democratic National Committee was housed.

Written by William Goldman, directed by Alan J. Pakula, and photographed by Gordon Willis, and with Robert Redford (who also produced) as Woodward, and Dustin Hoffman as Bernstein, this was one of many seventies film that worked as a collective project, no matter the auteurist leanings of the decade. Goldman may have proposed in his book, Adventures in the Screen Trade, that the auteur theory was a lot of nonsense and had nothing to do with how films were made, but perhaps what was so interesting in seventies cinema wasn’t that the director had so much more power than previously (though he frequently did), but that it appeared many of the key creative members of the team also had more say in the project. Various cameramen would comment on this freedom in Visions of Light, a book of interviews with cinematographers. Nestor Almendros, for example, who shot 1978’s Days of Heaven, said, “there would not be a call sheet that went into great detail as to what we were to shoot that day. Our schedule was dictated by the weather, the conditions and the way we were feeling. This made some people on the crew, basically a Hollywood crew, unhappy.” Vilmos Zsigmond, who worked on a series of Robert Altman films in the early seventies, says “I was actually operating my own camera [usually against union regulations], which helps a lot. The operator becomes the director of photography in those situations because you really have to decide yourself what you are going to do in improvised situations.”

This idea of people working in creative tandem, where each person has a distinctive creative voice, can cause problems, and justify the workmanlike, impersonal approach that insists cinema is a craft and not an art. As Willis says “bad chemistry happens in this business a lot. You try to make it good chemistry and you try to make an honest effort to do a good job.” Many seventies films, though, came out of this good chemistry: Taxi Driver was a strong combination of Martin Scorsese’s direction, Paul Schrader’s script, Bernard Herrmann’s music and Robert De Niro’s performance. Chinatown had a Robert Towne script, directed by Polanski and starring Nicholson. One could write on each of these films from the perspective of a particular creative figure within it: not only the director.

All The President’s Men is surely such a film. Indeed Goldman went so far as to suggest “that Willis’s basic shooting of All the President’s Men was the reason the movie worked.” When asked about the shoot, Willis reckoned “It was awful from the standpoint that you were constantly in the state of delivering information.” Basically it was the problem of making a talking picture a visual one, and if Goldman credits this to Willis more than anybody else, it resides in giving the film an architectural vision to an informational story as Pakula and Willis make the film a visual exploration on the problem of power and corruption.

This is evident for instance in the way Deep Throat is deployed. Now obviously such a figure existed, and this insider who would drip feed Woodward information that led to the scandal being uncovered is hardly a casual film gimmick: the actual Deep Throat’s identity remained a secret until quite recently. But he fits well within Willis’s reputation as the prince of darkness for his low lighting levels, and Pakula’s interest in the idea of information revealed in shadow rather than light. In Pakula’s Willis-shot Klute, the character who gets the titular figure to investigate a missing friend, and who himself turns out to be the murderer, is often filmed in silhouette and half light. In the director’s The Parallax View (also shot by Willis), the organization the central character ends up working with remains an essentially off-screen presence. Characters operating in the shadows happened to be part of Pakula’ aesthetic: Deep Throat lends himself well to the director’s general cinematic representation of the power problematic.

Writing on Klute when it was released, the New Yorker critic Pauline Kael thought there was a horror movie element to the film that undermined the emotional relationship at its centre. But, in the wake of The Parallax View and All the President’s Men, we may say the horror aspect was an attempt to visualise power that had become by the seventies perceived as corporate and invisible, shadowy and unknowable. After the series of assassinations in the sixties, after J.F.K. and Bobby Kennedy, after Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, power wasn’t representationally evident, but representationally covert. If Citizen Kane and the thirties set Chinatown, were great studies of early twentieth century power as charismatic presence, through Charles Foster Kane and Noah Cross, in Pakula’s work it becomes ominous absence. Pakula and Willis may have endless expositional dialogue to deal with here, but they manage to work it into a general sense of absence instead of expositional presence as certain seventies notions coincided with, perhaps even created, their own style.

A good example of this shadowy style comes in the scene where one of their contacts, played by Jane Alexander, is interviewed by both Woodward and Bernstein. In a scene shortly before, they’ve decided to ‘fake her out’: to assume that they know the man referred to as P is actually someone called Porter. They know she won’t name him, but if they mention his name as if they already knew, and they’re right, then she’ll think someone else has told them and not deny it. They’ll have their man indirectly but more or less unequivocally.

Equally, the film plays up shadowy absences in other ways too. When they visit Alexander’s character, they appear as if from nowhere in her garden, and the first thing she says, as she sits at her garden table, is that “they’ll see you”. “Not if you let us in they won’t”, Woodward says, as they refer to shadowy presences potentially observing their behaviour. In numerous other scenes Pakula plays on the sense of characters being watched, but doesn’t offer the counter shot affirming us in our belief that there is someone watching. In one scene while Woodward talks to Deep Throat in a basement car park, a car screeches off while they’re talking. As Redford turns back to Deep Throat after looking at the car leaving the car park, Deep Throat has disappeared. Pakula gives us a series of shots of Redford, or empty spaces, as the threat remains invisible. Such shots seem somewhere between Antonioni’s interest in shooting the same space from different angles, and the horror film’s utilisation of space for chilling, tension-building effect. Near the end of the scene David Shire’s music offers a menace without a subject, rather as Michael Small’s score often captured a plaintive tone in Klute and The Parallax View.

Pakula is interested in power and threat, but his work is at its best when refusing to reveal them as categoricals. The weakest scenes in Klute from this perspective would be the thriller elements near the end of the film where we know exactly who the baddie is and the danger Jane Fonda happens to be in, and the car chase in The Parallax View: scenes that seem aesthetically anomalous compared to the general tenor of the three films.

Though Willis talks about the difficulties of expositional material, and Goldman mentions both that the story had no structure to speak of, and “there were all those goddamn names that no one could keep straight: Stans and Sturgis and Barker and Segretti…” these weren’t insurmountable problems. They allowed the film to have its own ambiguity that was in some ways stronger than that of the more generic Klute and The Parallax View. Goldman was no doubt right to say the filmmakers didn’t want to ‘Hollywoodise’ the film, but as a consequence they instead ‘Europeanised’ it. The proliferating names and the looseness of the story, the secrecy of Deep Throat, the absence of clear villainy; all left space for a sort of conspiratorial vortex which needn’t conform to the demands of the thriller. If the involvement of numerous distinctly creative people was vital (from Pakula to Willis, Goldman to Hoffman, and Redford as both star and producer) the reality of the story was no less significant.

Few would insist that All the President’s Men was the best American film of the decade. Didn’t The Godfather have far greater and grandiose a social sweep, Taxi Driver go much deeper into the psyche, Days of Heaven hint at the cosmos, and, finally, aren’t Klute and The Parallax View not more visually interesting Pakula/Willis films? What it does though is sum up what seventies cinema was interested in doing without falling into the sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll mythology demanded of so many films Peter Biskind looks at in Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. If Biskind gives only a passing mention to All the President’s Men in his book, is it because he can’t quite shape the film to fit into the glorious indulgence of the auteurs he focuses upon? No film more than All The President’s Men seemed to be serving society and reality, rather than cinema genre and egoistic authorship.

Yet even Biskind quotes Robert Towne’s own purpose in relation to his work, including the aforementioned Chinatown, as well as The Last Detail and Shampoo, and that could sum up well much that drove seventies American film. When a kid, Towne noticed several things about movies: including that “the characters could always find parking spaces”, “they never got change in restaurants”; and that “women went to sleep with their make-up on and woke with it unmussed.” Towne thought to himself, “I’m never going to do that.” Though Biskind’s tome is a book on the infidelities of his cast of characters in their personal lives, more could be said about seventies cinema’s fidelity to the twin elements we’ve been pushing here: the figures’ respect for social reality and also to each other creatively. Mark Singer said in a New Yorker article that this was an “extended period in the culture where relationships were vague and messy by choice, where people who hung out together and generated ideas together tended not to dwell upon the power dynamics of their alliances.” There are scenes here where dialogue is barely heard because of a plane flying overhead (in an early scene where Bernstein flirtatiously tries to get information out of an attractive young woman), and ego conflicts dissolved for the purposes of the story. When Bernstein changes the wording of a Woodward written article, Woodward is irritated by the way Bernstein does it but accepts the article has been improved. The former scene could have been excised because it would have caused problems for the sound team who would want to show their skill in capturing clean sound, and the latter could have been a trade off between the actors for star status: that the scene would have been pure ego conflict, rather than promptly subsumed into the need to get a good story.

There is the suggestion that All the President’s Men is a worthy film, and yet that needn’t be seen as an insult if we accept that numerous seventies films were interested in the problem of ethics as they left behind the moral absolutes underpinning many a Hollywood classic, for a searching attempt at a new value system. Frequently seventies film showed the influence of the key sixties assassinations, Vietnam, the riots at the Chicago Democratic convention in 1968, Watergate and Kent State (where in May 1970 several students were killed by the National Guard during protests against Vietnam). There is a key line in Taxi Driver (released like Pakula’s film in 1976) where central character Travis Bickle says all the king’s men couldn’t put things together again, and it expresses well the fret of many films of the time. Even the apparently apoliticized Jaws owes something to Ibsen’s Enemy of the People as it focuses on the authorities protecting their own financial interests over the lives of the public. Critics including Stephen Heath and Robert Phillip Kolker have noted that Spielberg’s  film can easily be read as an allegory of Watergate.

All the President’s Men, though, unlike Taxi Driver and so many others, wonders whether society can be put together again, and the best way to look at the film’s plot is to see it as that very piecing together of a value system as it explores its undermining by others. Robert Redford was always an actor interested in pursuing positive values in his work, and indeed was replaced by Paul Newman on The Verdict because he wanted the role changed to suit his personality: the character was an alcoholic; not a character Redford wanted to play.  Critic David Shipman noted in The Great Movie Stars: The International Years that Redford generally wanted to glamourize his roles, saying Redford’s screen wardrobe was “perhaps the most lavishly designed and inappropriate since Joan Crawford’s: what he wears in all his period movies, though vaguely correct, is exactly what is the ‘in’ gear at fashionable boutiques.” Shipman is talking of the traditional Hollywood values of glamour he sees Redford pursuing, but equally we can talk of the traditional moral values that would seem to have been lost in the sixties and seventies, and which Redford in his own way wanted to rediscover. Watergate certainly indicated how rotten things were in the State of the U.S., but its uncovering also indicated hope within that corruption.

This possible optimism, however, shouldn’t be confused with the recuperative mode found in much eighties cinema, and explored by Kolker in his book The Cinema of Loneliness, where America was fantasized or hyperbolized in Spielberg films, in films with Stallone and Schwarzenegger. The values in All the President’s Men were values hewed out of the reality of the time, by a large group of creative people as if echoing The Washington Post team itself, and all the while with Pakula and Willis wary of giving the film too much visual optimism. All the President’s Men feels like the opposite of a self-serving film; it is instead a nation serving one, and a rare work in post-classical Hollywood that explores the possibility of social optimism by containing it within a vague, troubling vision that allows traditional values to assert themselves narratively, through presumably Goldman and Redford, while at the same time being encapsulated pessimistically by the director and cinematographer.

Would this type of tension not be lost in recuperative cinema several years later, where that sense of conflicting interests produced not creatively fascinating works, but often the compromises demanded of box-office and agent? In Reel Power, A book about Hollywood in the eighties, Mark Litwak says that “more powerful than Sylvester Stallone, Steven Spielberg or Barry Diller, the most influential person in Hollywood is not a star, a director, or a studio head…he is Michael Ovitz, the president of Creative Artists Agency (CAA).” By the mid-eighties we were very far away from the messy collaborations Singer writes about, with Litwak saying “critics charge that studios and producers are often forced to take unwanted elements in a package if they want an agency’s top clients.” All the President’s Men isn’t only a work of relative optimism in the expose of the Watergate scandal, but also in the sense of collaboration where one senses the best people available were serving the needs of the material. Even Goldman admits this in Adventures in the Screen Trade. There may have been problems between Redford and Pakula, Goldman and Redford and so on, but he hardly denies the significance of the final work. He might quote Kierkegaard on the problem of ‘insoluble tension’, but was this not the very tension, contained not egotistically within the individual and their status in relation to agent power, but shared creatively amongst a group of people, that helped produce so much great work? All the king’s men in the seventies were living in difficult times; but they were also respecting those times in demanding works where they were not so much the king or the president’s men, but figures possessed of creative sovereignty. The sort of creative franchising Nixon and others were trying to undermine in the political sense, the film people were trying to access culturally in surprisingly soluble  aesthetic tensions.


©Tony McKibbin