For 2016 I’ve given myself a weekly challenge: watch a film that I’ve never seen before. That’s it. One film, each week. No restrictions on age, genre, or theme.
PLEASE BE AWARE THAT MY DISCUSSION OF THESE FILMS WILL CONTAIN SPOILERS.
TL;DR: Are we tired of the political thriller? Magic 8 Ball says, “Maybe so.”
It’s inevitable for me to compare this film to Spotlight, which recently won Best Picture, but I think the comparison teaches us more about our political climate than it does about filmmaking. The films are extremely similar, from the crowded set to the grindstone journalism; they even each include a scene where a journalist sneaks past a secretary to talk to her reluctant boss. But, per my post on Spotlight, this realism is the best way to tell stories about journalism. One shot in All the President’s Men shows us a bird’s-eye view of a reading room table as the librarian fills it with stacks of cards that overflow the frame. Each chunk of table disappearing under another hour’s work makes you groan. It’s not glamorous or thrilling, but it gets the job done.
But today, All the President’s Men fights its own fame: it told a crucial story in such a particular style that it’s become cliche. Woodward (Robert Redford) meets with Deep Throat (Hal Holbrook) in the shadows of a nighttime parking garage. At one point a car’s headlights behind him make him spin on his heel in terror. After Deep Throat warns him that they are probably under surveillance, he rushes to Bernstein’s (Dustin Hoffman) apartment, turns on loud music, and communicates their dire situation via typewriter. The whole thing’s very noir, except it’s not dames you can’t trust – it’s the government.
But in our post-Watergate, post-Snowden world, the lies and the paranoia and the dirty money seem inevitable, even tired. America’s trust in its own government ebbs and flows, meaning Watergate was hardly the first time we suspected – or confirmed – that we couldn’t trust the people we’d elected. But Nixon’s resignation altered our political landscape. We now live in a world where we can’t even find unity in the fact that we all know the bastard did it, if only somebody could prove it. Instead there’s the cold truth: the president broke the law. He (almost) confessed. He surrendered his office. If it happens again, it won’t be unprecedented.
I suppose the difficulties I had with this movie spring from its chronological closeness to its source material. The Watergate break-in occurred in 1972; Woodward and Bernstein’s book was published in 1974; Nixon resigned in August of that same year. Filming began on All the President’s Men less than ten months later, in May 1975. This leads to a lot of unexplained name-dropping that had me itching to open Wikipedia. At the start of their investigation, Woodward and Bernstein pull the library records of Howard Hunt, part of the president’s Special Investigations Unit, because he’s been checking out large quantities of material on Ted Kennedy. Why is this suspicious? No one ever tells us. Early on we learn that John Mitchell is the head of Nixon’s Committee to Re-elect the President, but it’s not until the end of the film that we learn he is a former Attorney General.
All art is a product of its time. This isn’t a condemnation or a dismissal or an excuse; rather, it’s a recognition of the essential short-sightedness of all human beings and the astonishing truth that we still create things that resonate hundreds of years and thousands of miles beyond our time and place. I’m grateful for All the President’s Men, because it’s an essential portrait of a frightening time, and I’m not sure Spotlight would exist without it. But that same rootedness in a particular era has aged it in unexpected ways.