Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman forever immortalized Woodward and Bernstein in this exciting recreation of their Watergate investigation, which brought down a president.
Watergate was one of the larger blots on American political history, an episode we lived through for months in a state of fascination mixed with bitterness and shame. But All the President’s Men from the book by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, screenplay by William Goldman, directed by Alan I. Pakula, starring Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford–is popular entertainment: witness those block-long, lines that begin to form two hours before show time. So, watching it, I pretended as best I could that I had never heard of erased tapes or laundered $100 bills; that I had not sat evening after evening watching Senator Baker express his admiration for the public–spirited candor of the subpoenaed witnesses, or Senator Ervin demonstrate the excellence of his early instruction in the Bible. In short, I tried to pretend that I had just dropped in from Saturn for two hours and more of innocent excitement.
Looked at that way, the film is a splendidly proficient production of a woefully deficient script. For one thing, it is long on substantiating detail and short on real action. A great deal of time is spent showing Bernstein (Hoffman) and Woodward (Redford) hunting and pecking at high speed on late-model typewriters, cradling telephone receivers between neck and shoulder (they have become two of the most dexterous, telephone manipulators in Hollywood), attending crisis conferences at which they plead with their superiors on The Washington Post that, despite the evasions, not to say anonymity, of their informants, they are on to a great story and should be allowed to stay with it. Bernstein and Woodward consume countless containers of coffee, lose many hours of sleep, pore over extremely long lists of “leads,” and ring innumerable doorbells. But to the eye of the thriller addict, all this is mere atmosphere; it doesn’t make the blood leap. And the elements that might do that are not available. There are no big scenes; no confrontations, no sudden illuminations. Indeed, there are no villains. Hunt never appears, Liddy never appears, Mitchell is a befuddled voice on the telephone, Nixon is dubbed in from newsreel shots, smirking that nervous smile. We do get a couple of scenes with a reasonable facsimile of Hugh Sloan Jr. (Stephen Collins) and a longer scene with a virtuoso facsimile of Donald Segretti (Robert Walden). But who was Deep Throat, that shadowy figure illuminated only by a glowing cigarette? He is the “masked rider” on whom the whole show depends. Are we to go to our graves believing that he was Hal Holbrook, the well-known character actor?
There is growing talk of danger as the film progresses, and there are those recurrent spooky predawn meetings between Woodward and Deep Throat in a cavernous subterranean parking garage. The empty garage, where footsteps echo and matches flare like alarm signals, has become a stock setting in mod thrillers. The audience understands, when the hero ventures into that labyrinth of cement columns and confusing exit arrows, that he will have to duck and weave through ricocheting bullets to reach safety again. But nothing of the sort happens to Woodward; it is a clear case of red-herring foreshadowing.