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.
The film starts its hares, pursues them far enough to suggest that they were indeed real hares and then simply peters out with its loose ends all raveled. Did Nixon know; what did he know and when; why did the Cubans break into Democratic National Headquarters; did Chappaquiddick figure in the story; who wrote the fake Muskie “Canuck” letter; did Haldeman control the dirty tricks money? A well-scripted thriller doesn’t end with all its buttons hanging loose, but of course this is not an ordinary thriller–it is tied to a segment of history so recent that if it strayed far from fact on behalf of fiction, complaints would be filed (some have been, but on matters of no basic importance). At the same time, it is hardly a documentary. It displays the acrylic polish, department store chic that the British first made popular with their furled umbrella spy capers. And both Hoffman and Redford are far too recognizable, after far too many hit pictures, to lure the most gullible of viewers into the belief that what they are seeing is the real thing. If the stars are not enough to keep one’s head clear, Jason Robards is on hand, playing Ben Bradlee, editorial boss of the two young reporters. Assuming that Bradlee really comports himself with the twinkly cuteness attributed to him by Robards’s avuncular lines and tough affection, he must be the last of the great cornball newspapermen.
The effect of All the President’s Men is not to make Watergate more real but to make it more remote. It moves CREEP out of political history and into the land of SMERSH. It elevates John Mitchell from a disreputable steward of political arrogance to a disembodied ogre of corruption. It glorifies journalism (and I agree that the Post and its news staff deserve some glory) with an updated version of Front Page razzle-dazzle. I kept expecting someone to yell “scoop.” The only people in the film who project feelings that you can assimilate are the supernumeraries, mostly tormented secretaries, from whom Bernstein and Woodward sweated their drops of information. It is of passing psychological interest that, although they will speak no names, these victims of divided loyalty will answer questions by nodding their heads or confirm a hypothesis by remaining silent.
But the distancing effect of the picture may be the secret of is enormous success. People go to it, I’m reasonably sure, hoping somewhat morbidly that a screen re-enactment of the miserably inconclusive story, which began with a bungled burglary and ended with an opportunistic pardon, will somehow confirm their worst suspicions. It doesn’t do that, and they should feel a bit cheated. But it does something else instead: it takes Watergate out of their remembered past and puts it in the pastime category of The Ipcress File, Blow Upand The Manchurian Candidate. A weight is removed–the guilt of having been of voting age and letting it happen–and the audience applauds, a response you hear only when the customers think they got their money’s worth. Every country must find its own way to cope with national shame, and our way is characteristically American: we have packaged Watergate and are selling it at $4 a head. I await the musical version.