I like All the President’s Men almost in spite of myself. While the film is never entirely free of sanctimony, Alan Pakula’s calmly assured direction makes it into a very smooth, craftsman-like exercise. As a political “thriller” it’s no great shakes. In fact, there are no “thrills” to speak of, and the politics are assumptive. Because they are convinced of the evil they depict, Redford and company don’t bother to involve us much emotionally and the politics are a given. There isn’t even much sense of threat, which I have to attribute to the very calmness of Pakula’s approach.
Made not long after the Watergate break in and President Nixon’s resignation, All the President’s Men is a perfect example of Hollywood courage and conviction, or the lack of both. A film made at the height of the Watergate drama that took sides in the argument would have been genuinely risky and divisive, in short, truly political. Here, after the conclusion of the events, the “politics” are nothing much more than a flattering of left-liberal sensibilities. The filmmakers assume the majority of the audience will share their attitudes. Nothing is at risk. All those bad guys were caught, and we can feel smugly snug. With perfect 20/20 hindsight, the studio bravely adapts a bestseller into a star-powered, glossy product and takes a stand about something safely in the past. Bravo. The results are about as controversial as a movie about King John and the Magna Carta.
That is why the film is best enjoyed without thinking too much about the heavy issues it supposedly depicts. The stakes in Watergate might have been profound, but the film doesn’t make the case. Rather, taken as a story about a couple of journalists on the make, and their struggles to get their big break, it’s reasonably entertaining in “classic” Hollywood fashion. It tells a good story, which given the focus on journalists is appropriate. The film just happens to tell a story with real names attached to characters who, however, are just as conventional and formulaic as Joe Journalist from the Daily Drool.
And actually somewhat less entertaining, for there is no danger of Woodward and Bernstein cracking wise à la Ben Hecht. Quite the opposite: the most intriguing aspect of the film is that we are involved in their efforts without the characters being particularly sympathetic. We identify with their drive to reveal the truth and get the whole picture, but we don’t especially care for them as people, which is one reason why there is so little suspense. Woodward comes off as a fumbler, Bernstein as an insufferable prick. Those depictions are to the credit of Redford, Hoffman and Pakula. Instead of secular saints or witty smart alecks, Woodward and Bernstein are shown as very lucky professionals with elbows. The demonstration that hard-working, ambitious individuals are not very attractive may be unintentional, but it is the most interesting thing about the movie.