Klute and The Parallax View; the script was being written by William Goldman, best known for writing the snappy repartee of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. It's probably reasonable to assume that everyone was expecting a slicked-up, Hollywood-ized star vehicle, an easily digested (and just as easily forgotten) piece of studio fluff. What they got instead was one of the single best films of one of the cinema's finest eras.
And to top if off, it's not even about how they brought down a President. Director Pakula and screenwriter Goldman do all kinds of ballsy things here, but perhaps the bravest is their decision to end the story even before the Woodward-Bernstein book upon which it was based--i.e., to stop right at the point at which, by most people's standards, it gets interesting. But it makes sense thematically, because the movie isn't about them getting the story. It's about them chasing it. It's about the nuts and bolts of shoe-leather reporting, the endless paperwork, knocking on doors, working the phones (witness Pakula's almost fetishistic details to the notes they take during those calls). It's about the thrill of discovery, of connecting the dots, of piecing together the truth from a mass of lies. It's about the goosebumps you get from the sentence "I know I shouldn't be telling you this." It's about the chase.
It manages to be about all of that, and none of what we'd expect, and still work because of the filmmakers' decision to take a stripped-down, low-key approach--no signposting, no overdone exposition--and an insistence on documentary realism. Production designer George Jenkins reconstructed the Washington Post newsroom down to the tiniest detail on a Burbank soundstage; he famously even had the Post ship their trash to him, for set dressing. Pakula fills out the newsroom with terrific character actors, who appear to be having a great time playing hard-boiled old newspaper guys--in their editorial meetings, they put across the sound, the very feel of working at a paper. The telephone conversations have the texture of real over-the-phone recordings--the kind of buggings and surveillance that the reporters were investigating. Pakula lends an additional sense of spontaneity by leaving in little mistakes: Woodward, on the phone with a Spanish speaker, calls out to the newsroom, "Any of you guys speak English, uh, Spanish?" A plane flies over, loudly, while Bernstein interviews Colson's pretty young assistant; they keep talking, yelling over the sound. Woodward is so flustered and excited that he uses the wrong name at the end of the Dahlberg phone call. So on. These aren't smooth, rehearsed moments; they feel grabbed, as they happen.
Somehow, Goldman's script doesn't drown in the sea of names, titles, and assignments it dwells in. That was a danger when the film was released in 1976; it is even more likely today, when people don't necessarily remember who Haldeman or Sloan or even G. Gordon Liddy were. But Goldman's brilliant screenplay doesn't rely on that knowledge (though it helps); the story still plays because it's a) casually funny, and b) rooted in basic relationship patterns. There's something genius about the wordless scene in which Woodward and Bernstein become collaborators, and something classically effective about their initial distrust and suspicion of each other, in the way Woodward snaps, "Yeah, I know the number" when Bernstein tries to feed him a direct line. The ways in which they grow to trust each other are never explicitly stated, or even acknowledged; there is, thankfully, no scene where Bernstein puts his hand on Woodward's shoulder and tells him that, hey, come to find out, you're a helluva newspaper man, Bob. It comes across instead in the subtext of their scenes, in the ways that they work out the smallest details of their investigation, challenging each other with hypotheticals, scripting how they're going to get a confirmation out of a reluctant source. It also comes across because of the sly ways in which Goodman shows us that they're alike; the way Woodward keeps pulling information out of that "country club type" at the initial arraignment is barely removed from the way Bernstein stretches out his time in the Bookkeeper's living room. (Jane Alexander's haunted but understated performance is but one of the film's many memorable supporting turns.) And it come across in the subtle way that working together hardens them, as Sally Aiken (Penny Fuller) notes when she notes, "I guess I don't have the taste for the jugular that you guys have."
Thankfully, the two actors (who are at their best here because they do so little) also have Jason Robards's Ben Bradlee to work off of. His work is beautifully nuanced; he inhabits the role of their father/boss/intimidator/disciplinarian like a second skin. Robards is on screen for about four seconds and you understand exactly who he is and why he is so admired. And there's something wonderful about the little spring in his step as he walks away from the duo, after handing them back their explosive copy and announcing, with a little growl in his voice, "run that baby." He's still in it for that rush too.
Pakula's direction is so low-key that all the great stuff he's doing is almost imperceptible. But it takes a director of tremendous skill to build tension and suspense into a sequence that basically amounts to Jason Robards walking across a room, intercut with Dustin Hoffman counting to ten on a telephone. It takes faith in the material to play the entire Dahlberg call in one shot, and to do it in a push-in that is so subtle, the viewer doesn't even realize it's happening. It takes chutzpah to take the story of the fall of an empire, and to end it just when it's starting to crumble. But that's what he does, in that indelible closing scene; the newsroom televisions are on, and Nixon's second inauguration is in progress. And in between those televisions, two reporters are sitting at their desks, typing away.
"All the President's Men" makes its Blu-ray debut on Tuesday, February 15. For full A/V and bonus feature details, read this review on DVD Talk.