A blog about movies and filmmaking.

The most important movie in history

In classics, Uncategorized on July 19, 2009 at 4:19 am

There are movies that have inspired movements (EASY RIDER), special effects (STAR WARS) and even trends in plot (PSYCHO); and all of these movies are important in a number of ways. Then there’s the other movies that are inspirational and highly regarded as art (CITIZEN KANE), but there’s one movie that incorporates the art of making a movie as well as presenting the power that images on a screen can provide as well as the ideal that one (or two) men can make a difference. In my mind, that movie is the Alan Pakula directed, William Goldman scripted movie about the 1973 Watergate hotel break-in and the ensuing journalistic trial that lead to two men bringing down the leader of a nation.

ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN stars Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman as real life journalists, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, respectively. These two men who weren’t well known reporters, or even that well regarded – it’s mentioned that Woodward was close to being fired right before the story that made his career crossed his desk – but, because of their strength of character and endeavoring for the truth, that this story was told.

The movie opens on January 20, 1973, with a security guard (who actually was the real man that was there) finding a door to the Watergate hotel that has been taped to stay unlocked. He calls it in and a group of out of uniform police are called in to search the place. One of them finds a group of men hiding under desks. During their arraignment hearing, we get our first glimpse of Woodward, who has been called in when it’s made notice that the men who were arrested have acquired a prestigious, and well connected law firm to represent them. (And without having made a phone call to let anyone know they’re in jail.)

Thus is started the inquiry into who these men are (an ex-CIA employee and four men from Florida) and what were they doing in the office of the head of the Democratic National Committee. The movie covers the months it takes these two men to gather sources, make connections and “follow the money”, and in the end giving to their bosses a story that would attack some of the most powerful men in the government of our country. One of the most amazing parts of this story, is that the newspaper backed their men, and it lead to making history.

So, in telling this story about two men and this amazing story, they needed some top class actors to fill the parts. Not just the main characters, but every single person that is onscreen is either playing a real person, or a composite of a few people; so it makes sense to fill the screen with people that are living, breathing people. No one is evil here, there’s not even anyone shown on screen that actually has any ill intent. That’s seemingly mostly helped by the timeliness that this movie was made. The events shown took place in 1973-74, and this movie was made in 1976; so most of these people were all still alive, and active, when this movie was released.

The cast list is a who’s who of the greatest actors (and supporting actors) in the latter half of the last century (and millennium). There’s the men running the newspaper, brought to life by Jason Robards, Jack Warden and Martin Balsam; as the arresting officers and burglars, F. Murray Abraham, Dominic Chianese and Paul Herd; as the people involved as interviewees there was Jane Alexander, who while only on-screen for a few moments was nominated for an Oscar, Stephan Collins, Ned Beatty and Robert Walden; and of course Hal Holbrook as the ever mysterious (well, not so much anymore, I guess) “Deep Throat”, the insider who kept Woodward on the right track. And those are just the bigger names, there’s an almost endless list of cast members, with the higher profile men (Nixon, Liddy, etc) all portrayed through actual live footage.

Then there’s the movie itself, adapted from the book written by the two journalists. William Goldman, who seemingly had some issues in working on this script, wound up with a movie that helped further the movement that was started in 1973. Goldman says about the movie, “We are talking then about a movie that may be one of the few that just might have changed the entire course of American history,” in reference to the year that the movie coming out Gerald Ford lost his reelection campaign for President, and commenting that even Ronald Reagan saw that as a reason.

Pakula, who had already made a career for himself with KLUTE and THE PARALLAX VIEW, and with that paranoia and subversion of the “establishment”, made him the perfect choice to make this movie. (Although, strangely for a long time I thought it was Sydney Pollack that had.) Of course, in his career, this movie stands out as while still dealing with the same subject matter as his other movies (including THE PELICAN BRIEF, which I have a fondness for), ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN is real. The artistry with which he tackled this movie is amazing, and painstaking in the detail.

There’s the stories of the set built to stand-in for the newsroom to the Washington Post, from ordering 200 desks from the same company that outfitted the original office; to having a prop office recreate out of date phone books for the entire country. The opening and closing credits of the movie are overlayed with sounds and images that show the printed word as weapons, much like the gun fire and cannons that play over both parts. The opening credits sets it off with an extreme closeup of typewriter arms, typing out the title with each strike we hear the sound that is mixed the boom of a gun shot. It’s jarring, and let’s you know that this movie is going to mean business.

I can only imagine, audiences going in for their first showing of this movie, seeing that it’s a Pakula movie, starring Redford (Just coming off having made THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR, another political thriller) and Hoffman (who would soon have another spy thriller with MARATHON MAN), and not knowing to expect such an adventure through the more mundane parts of working as a journalist. Seeing these men, not run out for action, guns blazing; but sitting by their phones, trying to get someone on the record, or typing at their machines. And yet still being completely engrossed by it.

The way that the movie is shot is also done in a way to draw you into the entire world. A number of scenes are shot with a split diopter, camera lens – where both the foreground and the background are completely in focus (and usually slightly breaking, conventional laws of perspective). It’s used very well to show that there are things happening around these two men, while they’re completely focussed on this one story that no one seems to really care about. There’s also a number of long takes, usually just focussing on a close-up of Redford or Hoffman on the phone, or listening to a testimony. Add in also the tip of the hat to the more conventional spy-thrillers and film noir styles, when Woodward meets with “Deep Throat”. In one scene after they’ve been talking, the noise of a car speeding out of the garage, startles them and when Woodward spins around he’s all in shadow except for the blue hue, highlighting his eyes. Then he turns around and his secret benefactor is gone. Classic!

Lastly, there is the score by David Shire. It’s the quintessential music for a paranoid thriller. Working off previous work like THE CONVERSATION and eventually wworking his way back with the same themes with the 2007 release ZODIAC, from director David Fincher.

Now, my claiming that this is the most important movie, isn’t to say that I think it’s the best movie ever made; or even one of my favorites. It’s importance comes from it being a perfect melding of art and life. This movie changed American history (as Goldman said), it also has gone on to help influence the movies that helped to speak out against the last Bush administration – even if they weren’t able to end that reign – and hopefully will continue to be a learning post for future filmmakers that see and injustice, and might want to get that word out for the rest of the world to see. (Not suggest, that the people behind making this movie set out with those goals to begin with. They could have just thought that the story would make a great movie – and fortunately, they were correct in that assumption as well.)

So, I say go see it. Get it on DVD, watch it online (as of this writing, it is available to watch instantly on Netflix), but see it and know that a few can do something to affect the many, and more powerful.

  1. […] about equal the importance of ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN – a movie I’ve dubbed the “most important movie ever made”. At the end of THE INTERNATIONAL, the bad guys aren’t vanquished, hell, we might not even […]

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