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