Sunday, January 24, 2016

All the President's Men

SPOILER ALERT! The plot of the movie will be discussed.

The opening of this movie starts with a white background. The audience then realizes that they are looking at an extreme close-up of a page of paper inserted into a typewriter (the film is set in the pre-PC age of 1972) when the keys strike the paper with a resulting booming sound. In this opening we are told that this story revolves around the power of the printed word and the importance of the American protection provided in the Constitution to the right to free speech and with it a free press.

Alan J. Pakula’s direction (along with the Oscar winning screenplay adaptation by William Goldman, based on the Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein book) uses darkness and light to emphasize the battle between opposing factions at the time of the break-in at the Democratic headquarters at the Watergate Hotel in Washington D.C.  Right after the brightness of the opening we revert to the nighttime burglary at the hotel. The Cubans along with James W. McCord, Jr., are shot in in a dimly lit scene which mirrors their clandestine activities. Criminals want to hide their devious actions from the exposing light of the law and the public.

The perpetrators are caught because an alert guard, Frank Wills (playing himself), notes a door held open by tape over the lock. When the burglars are arraigned, we start to see the type of deception involved in the crime, and the fringe element that attaches to unlawful activities. As an example of this extremist element, one of the Cubans identifies his profession as an “anti-communist,” which the judge says is not your typical job title. Another warped individual is Charles Colson, the President’s special counsel, who has a saying on his desk that reads ‘If you got ‘em by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow.” We also find out that covert operative Gordon Liddy is a bit of a strange person, since he put his hand in a fire at a party and let it burn, saying the trick is “not minding.” At the arraignment, McCord admits to having worked for the CIA. Woodward (Robert Redford) assigned to the story, now is very interested in how deep down the rabbit hole the break-in may lead him. In addition, there is a high society lawyer present at the courtroom, who says he is “not here,” again indicating the desire for evasion. Woodward shows his reporter’s smarts, and his insight that something bigger is going on than meets the eye, by commenting to the lawyer that the burglars have top notch attorneys assigned to them and they didn’t even make a phone call. Also, he points out there must be someone else involved who was outside the hotel because the crooks carried walkie-talkies.

This sniffing out of clues lends a thriller/mystery feel to the film, building suspense, as do the scenes at the remote parking lots where Woodward meets his White House source, “Deep Throat” (Hal Holbrook), who is also filmed in shadows to mirror his role as a hidden informant, but which reflects the dark deeds he is exposing. These scenes at night also accentuate the scary atmosphere surrounding the conspiracy to conceal the crimes. The sound of Woodward’s solitary echoing footsteps at the parking garages stresses how alone and vulnerable he is. Jane Alexander’s bookkeeper for the Committee to Re-elect the President (with the appropriate acronymic name CREEP), is first seen in shadows in her home when Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) visits her. He draws her out by calmly sitting on her couch, hinting that he knows how she must feel threatened. She then emerges into the light of the room, as she moves toward wanting to reveal the hidden unlawful actions of people she at one time admired working for. The dark scenes are also contrasted with the bright scenes in the Washington Post newsroom, the place which wants to shine an exposing light on the covert goings-on with its reporting of the truth.

The two reporters encounter other evasions that indicate that there is a conspiracy at work. As they try to interview people, doors are slammed in their faces, and some individuals say that they have been threatened and are being watched. Woodward and Bernstein find out that ex-CIA operative, E. Howard Hunt, whose name was found in the burglars’ address book, and who works for the President’s special counsel, was trying to undermine Ted Kennedy, who the White House felt was a political threat. The White House librarian first admits to Bernstein that Hunt took out books on Kennedy in a phone call, and within minutes denies she even had the conversation. Pakula uses camera shots to show us the David versus Goliath task in which the two reporters are involved. When they go to the Library of Congress, the camera pulls away toward the ceiling as Woodward and Bernstein go through stacks of library slips to see what Hunt may have been up to. They appear to be the size of mice stuck in an enormous maze of government bureaucracy as they try to discover the truth. A similar shot occurs in another scene as we hear their voice-overs while they drive in a car the size of a speck as we are given an aerial view of Washington. It appears that they are dwarfed by the enormity of the power structure they are combating.

Bernstein has less of a problem manipulating other people to get the information they need. However, Woodward is bothered by some questionable ethical actions. He backs off asking a fellow female reporter, Kay Eddy (Lindsay Crouse) to get the names of CREEP workers from her ex-fiancĂ© (she does it anyway).  When they approach Treasurer Hugh Sloan’s wife, Debbie (Meredith Baxter Birney), Woodward at first says it is for Sloan’s benefit. She says, “No, it’s not,” and he admits “No. it’s not.” The reporters however do play deceptive games, fighting fire with fire, when they approach witnesses to extract information. They start to realize that a legitimate surface is no indication of what illegal activities are actually going on underneath. When they approach one interview, they walk along a lovely suburban street. Bernstein says, “It’s hard to believe that something’s wrong with some of those little houses.” To which Woodward, who has become a cynic after what they have gone through, replies, “No it isn’t.”

The reporters eventually discover that CREEP issued huge amounts of money to the burglars. They work hard to connect the break-in to the White House. Finally, Woodward gets tired of the evasive “games” being played and forces Deep Throat to give him the whole story, which ties the break-in and subsequent cover-up to White House Chief-of-Staff Bob Haldeman and the former Attorney General, John Mitchell (ironic, since he was the head of the country’s justice system). But, Watergate was just the tip of the iceberg, as there were covert subversive operations much earlier to undermine those opposing President Nixon’s administration, primarily Democratic candidates, by using false press releases, fake letters, electronic bugging, and stolen documents. They learn tht the whole U. S. intelligence community could be involved. Washington Post executive editor Ben Bradlee (Jason Robards, in a supporting Oscar-winning performance), is hard on the young reporters, but stands by them in the midst of adversity, and the story is published.

The film ends in the bright newsroom as Woodward and Bernstein are typing, bringing the truth to light, showing the pen is mightier than the sword. In the foreground is President Nixon on a TV being administered the oath of office at his re-election inauguration. He takes the oath to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States, an ironic scene, considering how his administration undermined that cherished document. But, as the reporters continue typing their revelations, their images come to the foreground and Nixon fades to the background, symbolizing his fall from power. The film ends as it began, with a typewriter hammering out words on clean, white paper, detailing the fall of the conspirators, and the resignation of the most powerful man in the world brought down by the freedom of the press he was supposed to defend.

The next movie will be They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?

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