Review: All The President’s Men (Pakula, 1976)

Part of the Top10Films: Dustin Hoffman feature

Dir. Alan J. Pakula; screenplay by William Goldman; starring Dustin Hoffman, Robert Redford, Jack Warden, Martin Balsam, Jason Robards, Ned Beatty

My first cinematic introduction to the Watergate saga arrived in the form a simpleton named Forrest Gump phoning the police after seeing some people burglarising the building across from his hotel. Of course, at the time I was eleven years old and neither understood the reference or had much interest in it. Watching the film now, the moment is another lovely touch in the factual adventure of fictional Forrest.

all the presidents men dustin hoffman robert redford

Yet, to get a real feel for the journalistic uncovering of the political foul play, you have to watch Alan J. Pakula’s superb “All The President’s Men”. It’s a film that bites hard and never lets go. Based on the book by Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) the film follows their trail from a simple burglary to the revelation that the Nixon regime was purposely corrupting its political rivals in order to suppress any opposition to its power. It’s a powerful story and a difficult one for American audiences to digest given the negative depiction of a ‘perfect’ democracy. It is also a brilliant portrayal of the newspaper industry, presented to us through the idealistic eyes of two driven reporters. It’s very much a positive example of the free press and free speech, and of tireless investigative journalism. It shows the ability to contradict governmental leadership in exposing scandal and corruption is the cornerstone of democratic society. It also, alarmingly, tells of a flawed democracy where, in the superpower that is the United States, democracy cannot be seen to have any imperfection.

Robert Redford, who bought the rights to film the book, painstakingly worked on the script before principle photography began, working firstly with William Goldman, then adapting a separate version written by Carl Bernstein and Nora Ephron. Alongside director Alan Pakula and fellow actor Hoffman, Redford spent many hours in the offices of the Washington Post to get a sense of the working practices of the journalists, the ambience of the newsroom, and the focused, cut-throat nature of meetings and press gatherings. Redford and Pakula worked on the screenplay with Goldman who would eventually produce a draft both the director and Redford liked.

But what makes the film tick so successfully are the performances of Redford and Hoffman. Hoffman was nominated for the Best Actor award at the BAFTAs but was criminally ignored by the Oscars. Both men, thanks to their hours of preparation, take to their roles as purveyors of the truth with zest and determination. Redford is the less experienced Woodward, he’s all hustle and bustle, and isn’t about to let his detractors stop him pursuing the story. Hoffman is Bernstein, more experienced, more reserved; he knows the system but is given renewed energy by Woodward’s unrelenting fortitude. The authenticity of their research and the difficult and often unrewarding task of piecing together the facts is delivered by director Pakula with precision and attention to detail. And, underneath it all bubbles a fast-paced mystery-thriller that carefully builds its tension until the climatic few minutes with the famous shot of Hoffman and Redford secretly relaying messages to each other via a typewriter.

About the Author
Editor of Top 10 Films, Dan Stephens is usually found pondering his next list. An unhealthy love of 1980s Hollywood sees most of his top 10s involving a time-travelling DeLorean and an adventurous archaeologist going by the name Indiana.

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