All the President’s Men (Blu-ray Review)21 Feb, 2011 By: Mike Clark
Stars Robert Redford, Dustin Hoffman, Jason Robards, Jane Alexander.
The classic Woodward-Bernstein saga on Blu-ray basically recycles 2006’s standard DVD, but a couple of things have changed in recent years to the release’s benefit. One is Blu-ray itself — a format ideal for handling the nuances of Gordon Willis’s photography, whose nocturnal subtleties and shadows are typified by one of Willis’s most famous works. The other is the collapse of the newspaper industry, which makes the very idea of everyday citizens having spent two hours each day reading Watergate hard copy (and they did; I was there) seem something close to otherworldly. Of course, the country was better for it, but that’s another story.
Willis and Alan J. Pakula (directing both his best film and William Goldman’s best script, an Oscar winner) turned my adopted Washington, D.C., into a very scary place — which, in 1973-74, it was. (I can remember NBC’s late John Chancellor, the night of the famed October 1973 “Saturday Night Massacre” of Richard Nixon attorneys general, creeping me out by intoning that nothing like it had ever before happened in the country’s history). Only a handful of scenes utilize natural light throughout the movie’s thoroughly engrossing 138-minute running time, though we get plenty of the cold and harshly sterile newsroom fluorescents from the ceilings of Men’s famed Washington Post set. Another Oscar winner, the latter was famously recreated verbatim in Hollywood after Men’s set designers even absconded with bona fide Post wastebasket trash to set new standards for verisimilitude.
Drive-ins, which require a hefty projector’s “throw,” were on the wane by 1976, but you have to wonder how the ones still in operation handled the scenes between Robert Redford’s Bob Woodward and his “Deep Throat” source extraordinaire (revealed in 2005 to have been former FBI Associate Director W. Mark Felt, who rates a profile featurette on the Blu-ray bonus section). Hal Holbrook’s scenes as the obviously unspecified Felt take place in an underground parking during the late p.m.’s, and (as Willis photographs him) add a new dimension to the term, “shadowy figure.” They are extraordinarily effective when they could have been hokey — and are emblematic of a career that got this preeminent Hollywood cinematographer of the modern era a mere two nominations during his actual career (for Zelig and The Godfather Part III) before he received a lifetime Oscar a couple years ago. But though Willis is also the guy who shot the other Godfathers, Klute, Bad Company, The Parallax View, Pennies From Heaven and eight Woody Allen movies, the statuette got presented at one of those special academy luncheons TV viewers don’t get to see (thereby freeing up airtime for an Oscar tribute to … John Hughes).
In a daring artistic move that seemed almost perverse at the time, Goldman’s script ends just as the work of Woodward and Carl Bernstein (played by Dustin Hoffman) begins to bear fruit — and this in a movie that came out almost two years after Nixon resigned and whose outcome was known to all. But by doing this, the movie gets to concentrate on what it’s really about: the grunt work of reporting (shoe leather and sore fingers from all that phone dialing) and the sometimes hilarious dynamics between two seemingly mismatched newshound protagonists (WASP Republican, Jewish liberal activist) that so intrigued producer Redford from the very beginning.
In one of the accompanying documentaries, Redford notes the decision to have both leads learn the other’s dialogue as well. This enabled them to step on each other’s lines in ways that sound like real conservations — especially between parties forced for months to spend most of each day and night together amid a diet of fast-food burgers and Chinese takeout. (One look at Woodward’s cramped/cluttered apartment, and you sense how tough it must be for an investigative reporter to forge a normal living arrangement with someone else.) The interaction also has a visual component, reflecting director Guillermo del Toro’s assertion (I think it was on the Pan’s Labyrinth DVD) that to him, cinema is about “looks.” A lot of the tension here is communicated by the principals’ fleeting glances, as is the (to them) spine-chilling authority of Post executive editor Ben Bradlee (an Oscar-winning performance by Jason Robards — who, when it’s called for, can also spout tangy dialogue here with the best of them).
I hadn’t seen Men in a while, but it hasn’t lost a thing — and remains one of the "Big Three" of newspaper dramas along with Citizen Kane and Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole. For me, it’s a Blu-ray must, even though the format’s expressiveness of detail isn’t enough to show me where I am (as an extra) in the nighttime crowd scene in front of Washington’s Kennedy Center as Woodward is one his way to the first meeting with Deep Throat. The crew filmed us at about 4 a.m. on a Friday night going into Saturday — after a prep time so extended that I feared the sun was going to come up before we could finish. Sun: now that would have foiled Willis.