Editor's note: Essential is a series by Dallas Morning News writers spotlighting timeless works of art and culture.
Essential Viewing: All the President's Men (1976, directed by Alan J. Pakula)
All the President's Men feels timely. Boy, does it feel timely. Digital dominoes are tumbling in Washington. In their wake they leave a trail of dots to be connected. The non-denial denial, it seems, is back in style.
But if the movie were merely topical we wouldn't return to it again and again. We do that because it's a bravura piece of filmmaking, built to last beyond yesterday's headlines or today's. It's a brainy, brawny thriller that barely pulls a gun (in the opening sequence, when undercover police officers respond to a break-in at the Watergate Hotel) and doesn't have any sex.
The subject isn't even the Watergate scandal so much as the reporting of the scandal. All the President's Men portrays the act of committing journalism as dangerous, sometimes dodgy and critically important to the functioning of democracy. It is both cerebral and exciting.
The tone and style of All the President's Men fit snugly in the catalog of the film's director, Alan J. Pakula. It was part of Pakula's paranoia trilogy, along with Klute, about a New York prostitute and a missing persons investigation, and The Parallax View, the story of a reporter who infiltrates a school for assassins.
It has all the Pakula trademarks, including extreme high angles, the better to shrink characters in the face of their seemingly impossible tasks, and a sound design that works with the visuals to ratchet up the tension. It assumes a level of intelligence in its audience, and it tells a story worth following through every blind alley, dead end and big break.
It's also a high-stakes variation on the buddy movie, featuring a mismatched pair of Washington Post reporters who team up to take down a corrupt presidency. Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) is a passive-aggressive pit bull, cagey and prematurely jaded. Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) is the stolid counterpart, greener and more cautious.
It's easy to forget some of the offhand humor that passes between the two in the course of their grave assignment. "Is there anywhere you don't smoke?" Woodward asks as Bernstein lights up on an elevator. Or when Bernstein breathlessly relates a key interview to his partner, and his paranoia that CBS and NBC might break in and steal the scoop: "You're both paranoid. She's afraid of John Mitchell, and you're afraid of Walter Cronkite."
Bit by bit, they get a document here, a confirmation there, and they keep digging and deducting. They also get Deep Throat, Woodward's deep background FBI source, played by an enigmatic Hal Holbrook.
The Deep Throat parking garage scenes are among the film's eeriest. Cinematographer Gordon Willis generally shows us only Holbrook's eyes, and frames the garage in deep focus (as he does the mockup of the Post newsroom created for the film). Much of the movie takes place in the shadows. Willis earned his nickname, the Prince of Darkness, as any Godfather: Part II fan can attest.
All the supporting players leave an impression, especially Jason Robards, who won an Oscar as the Post's craggy editor Ben Bradlee. When your backline cast includes Jack Warden, Martin Balsam, Jane Alexander, Ned Beatty and Holbrook, you've got something special on your hands.
Of course, some of the lines from William Goldman's Oscar-winning screenplay sound different now than they might have a couple years ago. The bulk of those lines come from Deep Throat. "The truth is these aren't very bright guys," Deep Throat tells Woodward. "And things got out of hand." Also, Deep Throat's advice to the young reporter: "In a conspiracy like this, you build from the outer edges and you go step by step. You shoot too high and miss, everyone feels more secure."
And so the faucet keeps dripping, slowly but surely. The story develops. The presses don't stop. And if the job is done correctly, without shooting too high, the truth is extracted from the darkness and brought into the light.