In an American history survey class, when we got to Nixon, one student asked if we could cover it. She felt we hadn’t covered it well enough. The professor said we would not be covering it–everyone knew it. He was–obviously–wrongly assuming some knowledge of history from college students, a foolish presumption (I have MFA instructors who know nothing about history). I actually have some sympathy for that student, since unless she read a book, she might not know a lot about Watergate. I read the book before I saw All the President’s Men and I still remember a couple things from that first viewing. One, the immediately odd opening credit: ‘A Robert Redford-Alan J. Pakula Film’, and the halving of the book. Given the historical importance of its contents, it’s hard not to look at President’s Men as a historical document, but it is not. It might very well be the Harry Potter of its day, actually.
From the beginning, following that odd credit, I noticed the perfection of the film’s production. Every shot is perfect, every edit. That scene with Redford on the phone (President’s Men, particularly in the first act, is probably Redford’s best work) is beautiful. Alan J. Pakula outdoes just about everyone with this film. Even after the first act, when the film’s odd pacing takes over (it’s made for a person familiar with the events, another comparison to Harry Potter), Pakula’s composition is still striking. David Shire’s score is very quiet and Pakula uses it sparingly, instead going for great sound.
Once into the film’s action, once it’s established there won’t be any real character relationships, since the principals of the film aren’t involved with the film’s major events, the film does begin to lose some steam. The wonderful character moments, when Redford and Hoffman interact with “real” people (the film’s filled with great small performances from Lindsay Crouse and Jane Alexander–Alexander in particular), stop and, while the film doesn’t get repetitive, it loses some of the charm. For that first seventy minutes, it establishes all these great little performances, then whisks them away from the viewer. Instead, there are other great performances, from Jason Robards, Jack Warden, and Martin Balsam, but somehow, those performances are less engaging. Especially when Warden effectively disappears from the film. Maybe in those more varied scenes, there’s some additional William Goldman goodness. All the President’s Men is Goldman at, if not his best then certainly his most skillful.
I thought watching the film today would be… not difficult, but somewhat sullied by the knowledge of the modern stooge media and knowing Nixon and his goons were nowhere near as bad as Republicans could get (in fact, they weren’t bad at all, all things considered), but it isn’t. The film stands on its own qualities and while it is a tad of the empty side of humaneness, it’s the best film ever made with that distance. It’s the kind of film Soderbergh wanted to make with Traffic, but couldn’t. Because he’s not Alan J. Pakula.