In spite of the fact that this is the week when we celebrate Valentine's Day, looking at the list of new DVD and Blu-ray releases, it seemed like there were more important - not to mention culturally relevant - movies to look at and place within a contemporary context. At one point, Sir Richard Attenborough's 'Chaplin' was a candidate for this week's column, but its minor awards season attention didn't render it worthy enough to supersede other films (and it certainly didn't help that we received the Blu-ray late Monday for Tuesday publication). Meanwhile, Warner Home Video is releasing two digibook Blu-ray sets for some of their most acclaimed films, and what resonates about those titles (at least in theory) is not just the quality of the films themselves but the way in which they anticipated and continue to reflect the artistic and cultural values of subsequent generations.
One of these two releases, 'Network,' is pretty unassailable, in a slightly different and yet equally powerful way as James L. Brooks' depressingly prescient 'Broadcast News' – both depict sea changes in the focus and impact of media, filtered through different sorts of stories. But Alan J. Pakula's 'All the President's Men' is another animal entirely, a ice-cold (and yet because of it, somehow irresistibly sexy) chronicle of news reporting in an era when the news cycle hadn't yet overtaken the possibility that real stories would get overlooked or ignored. But is it still a genuinely great movie? That's what this week's "Shelf Life" intends to determine.
The Facts: Released on April 4, 1976, two years after the publication of Bob Woodard and Carl Bernstein's nonfiction book of the same name, 'All the President's Men' earned more than $70 million against its reported $8.5 million budget, making it a massive commercial hit. Meanwhile, the film netted a variety of nominations and awards, including eight Academy Awards, for Best Picture, Director (for Pakula), Adapted Screenplay (for William Goldman), Supporting Actor (for Jason Robards), Supporting Actress (for Jane Alexander), Editing, Sound, and Art Direction. (It won Adapted Screenplay, Supporting Actor, Sound, and Art Direction.) It was also nominated for 10 BAFTA Awards and four Golden Globes. It currently enjoys a 100% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
What Still Works: Being a journalist of any kind today feels almost nothing like what Woodward and Bernstein do or have to do today, but 'All the President's Men' is one of the single most inspiring films about reporting news ever made. The added value of the real story notwithstanding, the film shows the amount of work that must go into serious reporting, but it also shows how effective all of that work can be. And in spite of the potential physical danger the duo faced while piecing together the story of the Watergate burglary, there's a liberating thrill that comes from watching something happen that absolutely must, but others desperately want stopped.
Whether it was by accident or design, where the film seems to be most authentic is in the way its characters are complex and intelligent but never infallible, nor omniscient. Robert Redford's portrayal of Woodward dances a delicate balance between dumb luck and narrow avoidance of failure, while Dustin Hoffman's Bernstein has instinct and insight but not always the tact or subtlety to be able to get what he needs or wants. That these two characters never simply concoct information – not in a reporting sense, but in terms of the film's logical progression – gives the film and additional layer of realism and believability that makes its story seem true, and not simply a dramatization of true events.
Finally, the film really captures the feeling of finding the truth about something, in a full, complex and complete kind of way, and the sense of empowerment that comes from, quite frankly, doing almost anything well. This is communicated less in the story itself than by the story as a device – a depiction of the pursuit of a larger truth that is hard to uncover but worth the effort. Particularly in the entertainment industry, there seems to be an impulse to regurgitate and report of rumor or hearsay simply because it seems newsworthy, regardless of its actual newsworthiness, or worse yet, its accuracy. While that is partially the result of a never-ending, 24-hour news cycle, it is representative of a different era, and that sometimes shocking difference reinforces the idea that good journalism will always be wanted, and especially needed, because its ultimate importance cannot be overestimated.
What Doesn't Work: It's precisely that disparity between today and 1976, when the film was released, that will prove the most jarring for many viewers. That isn't to say that the film is less effective because it isn't 100% timeless in terms of period or procedure – although is timeless in more important ways because its larger themes aren't tied to more immediate technological concerns, but larger societal implications – but that modern viewers may be less able to relate to the shoe leather and determination that the work of Woodard and Bernstein requires in order to uncover the truth. We live in an era where the discipline is gone of searching for something, researching and collecting information, interpreting that information and streamlining it into a focus, cogent argument or analysis, and our ability to google-search an answer to any question makes the film occasionally seem like its characters are going to more trouble than those answers are worth.
Meanwhile, although I deeply admire the film's commitment to authenticity in terms of the journalists' repeated efforts to speak with, follow up and interrogate interviewees, that back and forth does sometimes slightly feel like dramatic manipulation; not that the film must have single-minded movement towards its real-life conclusion, uninterrupted by problems or obstacles, but the idea of going to a source, speaking with them, going away and discussing it, and then returning immediately to ask more questions is, for lack of a better way to describe it, inefficient. That said of course, the process for a reporter is absolutely inefficient at times, but for the purposes of a film, I ask rhetorically whether the film might have ultimately been dramatically stronger had it condensed even one or two of the multiple conversations that Woodward and Bernstein have with their interviewees. (In fact, it's almost a relief when Woodward confronts Deep Throat, telling him he's tired of the runaround and won't settle for vague answers.)
Finally, while the end of the film has an unobtrusiveness that absolutely works – a sense that dogged commitment and persistence won out over flash and misdirection and misinformation – there is a slightly jarring feeling that comes from the final shots of the film, which are literally teletype headlines of subsequent stories bearing out their research and reporting as true. Beyond an obviously empowering sense of vindication, the simplicity, and perhaps more, the lack of personality of those headlines, compromises the humanity of the characters' efforts throughout the film. At the same time, that may indeed be the point – that objectivity and persistence won out over all in the end, and that the clear and unvarnished truth of their reporting is a triumph over the lies and deception of the Nixon administration – and as such, the film's triumph is a philosophical one over a human one, and depending on one's connection with the film that may be precisely what's desired or a bit of a digression from the previous scenes.
What's The Verdict: 'All the President's Men' is a truly great movie, and these observations of its choices notwithstanding, it is an almost flawless portrait of the power of the news media, when it is vigilant. Honestly I can't say that I would ever go looking for the kind of story that these two reporters broke, or would be up for the work involved even if it did, but I found myself more inspired than ever to write and report in a way that captures the essence of the facts without undue prejudice, and absolutely with the fullest sense of accuracy and clarity possible. But particularly in an era where events like Wikileaks are in some ways exposing the depths of concealment and, again, deception on the part of the government to the people of the United States and the world, this film is a sobering reminder that there are unfortunate and unflattering and awful truths that sometimes must be reported – and that those revelations are indeed beneficial in the long run even if they don't always seem that way at the time.