PAST AS NOT SO OBVIOUS PRELUDE (Noir, Noir, Noir: Second Feature)

All the President’s Men (1976)
Director: Alan Pakula

allpresidentcover2I’m not sure how many people have viewed the straightforward screen adaptation of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s account of how they broke open the Watergate scandal that felled Richard Nixon as noir (as opposed noir-ish, which can be stretched to include almost anything that isn’t an MGM musical). From that contemporary Czech poster above, I’d say the commies, at least, had a notion.

But if noir is defined by a film’s relationship to, as Edmund Wilson might have put it, the specifically American Jitters, then All the President’s Men isn’t just noir but near-definitive. If it happens to also be quite faithful to history, as no one has ever credibly denied, then it’s all the more remarkable.

It’s worth remembering that noir at its best is never invested in civilization. Most of the black-and-white killer-dillers from the classic period (Double Indemnity, The Big Heat, The Asphalt Jungle) are fundamentally pre-civilizational, man stripped bare, deprived of any but the basest aspirations (lust, greed, survival, revenge). That’s why the ones that worked at all worked extremely well, and also why even the very best of them tended to sell out at the end. They didn’t always, or often, end happily, but they nearly always ended romantically. How else to cut the darkness?

On that score, All the President’s Men has a seemingly insurmountable problem. The romance seems built in. Heroic journalists trying to bring down the king yaddah, yaddah, yaddah.

But, given the source and the times that produced both the history and the movie, no amount of star power or studio gloss could keep it from being ultra-realistic, too. Somebody realized that and doubled down. Almost no film from the ultra-realistic seventies feels as much like a period documentary as this one, and that’s despite the presence of heavy duty stars and top flight character actors, the kind with personas attached, popping up throughout.

You could argue (I wouldn’t), that Dustin Hoffman or Robert Redford or Jason Robards have been better elsewhere, but, despite the near-ubiquitous presence of their real-life counterparts (Bernstein, Woodward and Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee, respectively) in our lives for four decades running (even Bradlee’s death only slowed him down a little), the actors still seem more like those men than they’ve ever seemed liked themselves. I see Carl Bernstein on CNN, bloviating on yet another topic he clearly can’t be bothered to know anything about, and all I think is “Too bad he’s not really Dustin Hoffman.” I see Dustin Hoffman in All the President’s Men and all I think is “too bad he not really Carl Bernstein.”

And that’s the easy one…the one who probably didn’t work for the CIA.


None of which makes ATPM either great or noir. It wasn’t really meant to be great, I don’t think, except maybe in the way earlier classy commercial properties like The Ten Commandments or My Fair Lady were. Great in the grand old Hollywood style of radiating a certain stiff-necked significance, a film the whole family should see.

And I certainly don’t think it was meant to be noir.

But put a bunch of talented people together with an indelible moment and you never know what might happen.

For one thing, it might actually work on the “significance'”level, as ATPM did and does.

But then it might also, over time, leap the trace.

As ATPM certainly is doing now, in this turbulent month when, on a hunch, I left Medium Cool and A Face in the Crowd to the liberal twitter crowd and pulled this off the shelf instead.

Dutifully or not, ATPM gives us a worm’s eye view of the process of catching rats in high places. Consciously or not, its obvious message is that the only people really qualified to do the job are other rats.

You don’t need to buy Ben Bradlee as a lifelong CIA asset–or someone who would have snuffed the story of the century in the cradle if it had been likely to bring down somebody he liked–to get that from the movie.

And that’s what makes it great.

And that’s what makes it noir.

Maybe just because the heroes involved were more transparent than they knew, even in the moment (forget the long aftermath), it’s possible to be grateful for what Woodward/Redford, Bernstein/Hoffman and Bradlee/Robards did without liking them even a little bit. Against all odds, the movie resists heroism. It just sets you down in soulless “news rooms,” shadowy parking garages, wet city streets, sunlit suburbs, some “ratfucker’s”  apartment….and then lets you work out the moral logistics for yourself.

Sure, Woodward/Redfern occasionally shows a touch of remorse or honesty or self-reflection–or at least seems to. But, real or faked, it never lasts. You can never be sure that these things, too, aren’t calculated as a price well worth what was then merely a potential payoff.

Brave? Prescient? Pure Fluke?

Who knows?

But as we enter our post-civilizational phase, where no secret is so dark it could ever possibly bring anybody down (what Donald Trump really meant when he said he could shoot somebody on Fifth Avenue and it wouldn’t make any difference)–a phase that surely began when the half of the “establishment” that had driven Nixon from office for the one truly unpardonable sin of attacking them, decided early retirement was punishment enough–it feels odd to watch a film that captured that moment a little too perfectly. It comes uncomfortably close to proving noir‘s unspoken pre- and post-civilizational premise: The darkness is all there is.



(NOTE: As I  pretty much always do, I watched All the President’s Men in tandem with Dick, Andrew Fleming’s 1999 duck-and-cover satire of same. I was reminded, yet again, that even the most brilliant satire runs up against limits. I was also reminded, yet again, that those limits can be transcended if you manage to weave “You’re So Vain” into a realistic depiction (beautifully played by an up-until-that-very-moment-gloriously-over-the-top Dan Hedaya) of Nixon departing the White House while Betsy and Arlene cut up some American flags which they intend to put to very good use. I’ll probably have more to say about Dick, which also happens to be one of the two or three greatest movies about the seventies, a decade that arguably could only be understood satirically, some other time, but for those interested, this lovely reminiscence is highly recommended, not least because it reveals how disastrously close “You’re So Vain” came to being….something else!)

5 thoughts on “PAST AS NOT SO OBVIOUS PRELUDE (Noir, Noir, Noir: Second Feature)

  1. DDJ

    While reading your thoughts on ATPM (which is a must-read book, as its its follow-up), I was thinking what a BIG dick that Woodward had become.

    Which led me to correcting myself: I hate using the male member as a sign of denigration.

    Which of course made me think about what a BIG dick Dick had been.

    Then I get to the end and you mention DICK the movie, which I have somehow never seen!

    o I just got back from the library website and I am #1 in line for DICK.

    See, when you motivate me, I don’t dick around . . .


  2. Agree about ATPM the book, though it’s been years since I read it (I find rewatching the movie satisfying enough ever since but I’d always recommend reading the book first).
    Definitely interested in your reaction to Dick the movie….I can’t pretend to be entirely rational about it because seeing it in a mostly empty theater with a couple of friends of mine (we were all in out late thirties at the time) was basically the most fun I’ve ever had in public. Their nine-year-old son kept looking at us like we were crazy but we finally laughed so much he started laughing at us. Probably just as well we didn’t have a lot of company but ever since I can’t watch it without feeling the residual happy glow of that first experience…Still, I think you’ll at least find it amusing and I was happy to learn that it’s now considered a cult classic, etc. Definitely deserved a bigger audience than it got.

  3. Well, it’s a little late in my life to discover that I love DICK, but there you have it! The jokes throughout were hilarious, especially of the Nixon people—who among them had the wit and irony to reduce the Committee to Re-elect the President to an acronym like CREEP?

    And the Seventies seemed like it was ruled by the airheads who watched the ‘Sixties go by and picked up on style but as usual missed the content.

    But I don’t know if someone younger who didn’t live through those years could ever appreciate it. Even if they read Woodward and Bernstein’s ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN and THE FINAL DAYS and Dean’s BLIND AMBITION, which verified everything the righties said was manufactured in THE FINAL DAYS and made Dean a hated figure in conservative circles.

    I normally have a VERY difficult time sitting through Will Ferrell, but the take on the two fledgling journalists was brilliant.

    And it’s easy to see why Hollywood went gaga over Kirsten Dunst.

    For younger readers, those of us of Vietnam War age thought we could NEVER EVER EVER loathe any politician more than we loathed Tricky Dick. But we forgot about Governor Reagan in California and who knew that Bush guy with the CIA had ambitions for his sons?

    Again, thanks for the recommendation!

    PS: Berni thanks you, too . . .

  4. You are both very much welcome. I’m always glad to bring the light about Dick! As I said before, it was the best experience I ever had in a theater and I suspect the friends who saw it with me would say the same.

    I, too, had assumed that you probably needed to have been there to fully appreciate it. (In fact, I wasn’t sure anybody who wasn’t actually in the eighth grade during Watergate would truly get it). But apparently it has picked up a cult following among the young folks. That may be because Dunst and Williams are both very recognizable names and people just rent or steam it on the strength of their justifiable affection for one or the other (or both).

    But I suspect it’s also because the specific people being skewered (and it was a touch of genius to skewer EVERYBODY, not just the usual ready-made villains) are still very much recognizable as types.

    Unfortunately and alas.

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