All the President's Men opens with a typewriter key hitting white paper. Although the image is familiar — a de rigeuer trope in all newspaper films before the computer age — the accompanying sound startles us: The key strike seems to detonate, loud as a bomb and, by implication, just as explosive.
The film, of course, chronicles the dogged work of Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein as they bushwhack the faintest of trails from the break-in at the Democratic National Committee's HQ in the Watergate complex to the Oval Office in the White House. The initial crime appears little more than police-blotter filler — which is why relatively recent hire Woodward is tabbed for the assignment — but as the pair beaver away at the story, a far larger and more pernicious pattern of corruption emerges: a program of campaign "dirty tricks" funded by Richard Nixon's Committee to Re-elect the President (whose hilariously apt acronym is CREEP).
No film before or since has so effectively captured the journalistic process or illustrated so persuasively its essential importance. All the President's Men undeniably heroicizes Woodward and Bernstein — they're played by then-megastars Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, after all — but it never glamorizes the job they do. The pair receives only grudging support from most of the Post editors — who remain both skeptical of the story and understandably frightened by its potential repercussions — and the film relentlessly emphasizes the tedium and frustrations of the reporting process, with its endless courting and wheedling of mistrustful sources, its long hours wasted on running down dead-end leads (beautifully captured in the ever-ascending overhead shots in the Library of Congress as the pair fruitlessly sifts through stack after stack of White House book requests).
The complexity of Watergate — the dizzying number of names and titles and the opaque connections between the ever-multiplying players — could easily have overwhelmed the audience, but screenwriter William Goldman and director Alan J. Pakula keep our unwavering focus by structuring the film as a detective story (an altogether remarkable feat, given that we already know the mystery's solution) and subtly building suspense. Pakula had honed his craft on two previous thrillers — Klute and The Parallax View — and with cinematographer Gordon Willis (known as the Prince of Darkness for his deliberate under lighting), he creates a disquieting aura of menace, especially in the parking-garage sequences with Deep Throat (the mesmerizing Hal Holbrook), which unfold in enveloping shadows. Jason Robards Jr., as Post executive editor Ben Bradlee, rightly received the majority of critical attention, but Pakula also smartly fills even minor roles with extraordinary actors — Jack Warden, Martin Balsam, Jane Alexander, Robert Walden, Stephen Collins, Ned Beatty — who manage to define their characters in swift, deft strokes, allowing us to better follow the narrative's convolutions.
By the time the film was released in 1976, Nixon had long since resigned — the result, in significant measure, of Woodward and Bernstein's reporting. But All the President's Men chooses to conclude not with an ultimate vindication but with a temporary setback: A story that names Nixon chief of staff H.R. Haldeman as one of the architects of the dirty-tricks scheme is undermined by an error in its sourcing, and the duo's carefully vetted investigation comes under intense questioning. Although the issue is soon resolved and the story proven true, the film very cannily denies us that satisfying moment of reportorial triumph. Instead, All the President's Men ends with Nixon's second inauguration. As the event plays on a television placed in the foreground of the screen's left, Woodward and Bernstein persistently hammer away at a story in the background right. And when a 21-gun salute is heard on the television, the clattering keys of the newsroom's typewriters provide the pointed response.All the President's Men Screens at 7:30 p.m. Friday, May 15, at Webster University's Moore Auditorium (470 East Lockwood Avenue; 314-968-7487 or www.webster.edu/film-series).