Review by Trylon Political Conspiracies Director Aaron Vehling
The most paranoid man in America in the 1970s — well, at least the most powerful paranoid man at the time — was President Richard Nixon, whose own unbridled fear and anxiety led to him to tape most conversations in the White House with a voice-activated system that would eventually bring him his presidency to a shocking, embarrassing halt.
However, none of that is touched on in the 1976 political thriller All The President’s Men, which only focuses on the earlier chapters of the story told in the book from which it’s sourced. We get “Watergate: The Early Years,” a triumph of obsession.
But Nixon’s obviously still a major force, for his paranoia was the Big Bang that created the system in which his operatives felt compelled to break into the Democratic national headquarters in the Watergate Hotel in our nation’s capital. However, it’s the paranoia of reporting on the aftermath that breathes life into a film starring Robert Redford, Dustin Hoffman, Jason Robards and others.
The film, the final installment of director Alan J. Pakula’s “paranoia trilogy” that also included Klute and The Parallax View, follows Washington Post rookies Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein as they piece together, with the help of Deep Throat (Hal Holbrook) and others, as they navigate the dark and seedy labyrinth of power and corruption in Nixonian Washington, D.C. ahead of the 1972 election — which, if you don’t recall, saw Nixon winning by one of the biggest landslides in history, winning everything but D.C. and Massachusetts.
As they follow their leads, Woodward and Bernstein stumble onto a series of small tips that slowly connect the burglary further and further up the food chain, all the way up to Tricky Dick’s top associates.
Woodward’s meetings with Deep Throat (later revealed to be W. Mark Felt, a top-ranking FBI man) are steeped in fear and suspicion. Deep Throat requires Woodward to meet him in a darkened parking garage, and in order to get there Woodward has to switch cabs along the way. Deep Throat speaks to Woodward in riddles and carrots such as “follow the money,” which the real Deep Throat never said, but which does lead to a Minnesota man with a rather Minnesotan name: Kenneth H. Dahlberg, the Committee to Re-elect the President’s Midwest Finance Chairman and a man whose company later helped finance Buffalo Wild Wings. So although Dahlberg was never implicated in the CRP’s money-laundering scheme to fund efforts to sabotage Democratic presidential candidates ahead of the 1972 election, his hands would eventually be covered in the felonious atrocity that is BBW’s take on buffalo sauce.
All of the events in the film are bound together by a check for thousands of dollars that Dahlberg wrote because he didn’t want to carry around a bunch of cash — and which eventually made it into the coffers of the CRP for a scheme orchestrated from the White House itself. I’m simplifying the story significantly, perhaps out of paranoia.
As the reporting progresses, some of Woodward and Bernstein’s key sources recant, out of fear. There’s a point where Woodward and Bernstein learn their lives might be in danger, and that their electronic communications might be monitored. They even are concerned that, like the White House, their own homes might be bugged.
Editor Ben Bradlee (Robards) and some of the other top editors at the paper are concerned about being the only ones still reporting on Watergate, worried that their careers will be toast if it turns out Woodward and Bernstein’s pet obsession turns out to be less than meets the eye.
Like the previously mentioned Deep Throat scenes, the whole film portrays those moments with a tightly composed shot, bordering on suffocation. Only in the expansive news room does it seem as if there’s a breath of fresh air, that all of this conspiracy-laden insanity is in the minds of some bored and crazy souls, meanwhile the other reporters and assistants maintain occupancy in the world of sausage-making politics and crime in the actually desperate, dangerous world of 1970s Washington, D.C.
Redford helped shepherd the film into existence and that drive helps him to shine in his role as the understated, earnest Woodward. Hoffman’s fast-talking, chain-smoking Bernstein is a nice foil.
They make a great team, and even if they didn’t really singlehandedly take down the Nixon administration, as the film suggests (and the book doesn’t), they might have played a huge role in ushering a bunch of promising young and curious writers into the stressful, paranoiac world of journalism.
Looking back, there are a lot of aspects of the film that are dated — the cars, the technology, the fact that people smoke in their offices — but what isn’t is the surveillance and tomfoolery perpetrated by the government. Only now, the surveillance is championed and ubiquitous and the tomfoolery as pedestrian as eating breakfast. I’d better calm down, though. Someone’s likely monitoring this transmission. — Aaron Vehling
Aaron Vehling operates the music blog Vehlinggo.com, in which he genuflects several times a week toward disco, synthwave, house, and all that other stuff that makes you dance, cry, and fall in love. He digs the music of Johnny Jewel and the films of Lars von Trier. Though he’s from Minneapolis, he now lives in Harlem, New York, on the same block as the mansion from The Royal Tenenbaums.
ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN screens at the Trylon Monday and Tuesday, February 16 and 17, at 7:00 and 9:30. Advance tickets can be purchased here.