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Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Oscarstravaganza: All The President's Men

* * * *

Winner: Best Sound, 1976

Director: Alan J. Pakula
Starring: Robert Redford, Dustin Hoffman, Jason Robards

Every once in a while I see a film that makes me understand why people often say that they miss the days when movies were made for adults. All The President's Men, based on the book by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, is a movie for adults, one that doesn't punctuate it's story with violence or sex, but relies solely on its ability to engage with the audience on an intellectual level. It's a refreshing movie - even 34 years later.

The film is kicked off with the break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters. Washington Post reporter Woodward (Robert Redford) is sent to court to cover the arraignment of the five men arrested at Watergate and quickly comes to believe that there's something bigger going on. His colleague Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) also thinks that something is being covered up and manages to get himself on the story as well. There is tension between the two men at first, stemming largely from Bernstein's unsolicited help in punching up Woodward's copy, but they quickly learn to work together and their styles end up balancing each other out. Woodward's ability to finesse and Bernstein's ability to get to people who are reluctant to see him (he is nothing if not tenacious and just a little bit sneaky) are both valuable assets that pay off big time.

For a while the story seems to be going nowhere. Their boss, Ben Bradlee (Jason Robards), threatens to kill it unless they can put the disparate elements they've gathered together into a cohesive narrative, others argue that they don't have the experience to cover it, and many seem to think that there's no story at all. The Post is dangerously close to becoming a joke in journalistic circles, which in turn prompts Bradlee to dig in his heels, standing behind his reporters even as he worries that they might not be able to pull it off and show the government's level of involvement in the scandal. Woodward and Bernstein persist, putting the pieces together with the help of Deep Throat (Hal Holbrook), and writing a story that would forever change the face of American politics.

The end results of Watergate are well known and the film itself doesn't really dwell on the consequences of the story. Instead it focuses on how the story is put together and manages to construct itself in a way that is exciting even when things aren't really moving forward. Woodward and Bernstein spend a lot of time chasing down false leads, getting doors slammed in their faces, and being given the run-around over the phone, but director Alan J. Pakula is able to convey these scenes in an energetic way that builds momentum, which can't have been easy. All The President's Men is made up almost entirely of people doing little more than talking but it's more thrilling than most movies that rely on explosions and car chases as crutches. The screenplay by William Goldman won an Oscar and it's easy to understand why - the script is so solid that it really becomes the star of the show.

All told, All The President's Men was nominated for 8 Oscars and won 4, for Sound, Adapted Screenplay, Art Direction, and Supporting Actor for Jason Robards. Surprisingly, neither Redford nor Hoffman made the cut as Best Actor, though the field was admittedly a bit crowded that year (the winner was Peter Finch for Network, the other four nominees were William Holden for Network, Robert De Niro for Taxi Driver, Giancarlo Giannini for Seven Beauties, and Sylvester Stallone for Rocky). It's perhaps because it's difficult to think of Woodward and Bernstein as separate people rather than a team (throughout the film they're referred as "Woodstein"), which is really a credit to how well Redford and Hoffman work together. They make a believable team and play their characters as men who have their differences but aren't defined by stylistic quirks. Redford and Hoffman have both had rich careers full of great performances and their performances in All The President's Men are right up their amongst their best.


Tom said...

Why did this film win for "Best Sound"? I never understood this.

The Film Connoisseur said...

Wow, this movie went up against Network?? Damn, that mustve been THE year for controversial films then!!

I cant wait to see this one, I had my eye on it cause I love movies with a brain, and movies that are as you say "made for adults" so your review finally convinced me to check this one out! Thanks!

The Film Connoisseur said...

By the way, if you haven't seen Network....you HAVE to! Its electrifying filmmaking at its best!

Norma Desmond said...

@Tom: I can understand how it won sound mixing, particularly for the scenes involving Woodward's meetings with Deep Throat. The sound quality is really excellent.

@Film Connoisseur: It was up against Network and Taxi Driver. And the Oscar went to... Rocky, the safest choice of the bunch.

I have seen Network. It's one of my favourites.