Cinemalphabet: A is for All the President’s Men (1976)
As a political thriller junkie I am often more concerned with how well films in the genre adhere to the tropes rather than how accurately they seek to reflect “historical” events. Cinema – with its mandate: “Never allow the truth to get in the way of a good story” – is often a flimsy framework in which to conduct fact finding expeditions. After surveying a bevy of worthy political thrillers, dramas and action flicks including: The Parallax View, Z, The Day of the Jackal, JFK, Absolute Power, Klute, The Conversation, Three Days of the Condor, Spy Games and Enemy of the State, I’ve drawn two conclusions:
- They don’t make great ones much anymore.
- 1976’s All The President’s Men is the most tropetastic of the bunch.
Based on the book by The Washington Post journalists Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, All the President’s Men chronicles the story of two plucky journalists – Bernstein (Hoffman) and Woodward (Redford, possibly evoking the Danza rule) – who set out to prove corruption at the highest corridors of power. Regardless of the accuracy of the film’s premise, nearly all political thrillers are concerned with exposing scandals at the highest level with lots of reliable character actors serving as scandal ridden proxies.
If your film doesn’t end with someone being exposed, going to jail, committing suicide, being killed by a shadowy covert operative or being publicly disgraced, then it’s not a political thriller. Or at least not a good one.
While All the President’s Men is a pretty fabulous film, it’s not without serious narrative deficits. But I’ll let Roger Ebert deliver that bit of bad news:
“All the President’s Men” is truer to the craft of journalism than to the art of storytelling, and that’s its problem. The movie is as accurate about the processes used by investigative reporters as we have any right to expect, and yet process finally overwhelms narrative — we’re adrift in a sea of names, dates, telephone numbers, coincidences, lucky breaks, false leads, dogged footwork, denials, evasions, and sometimes even the truth.
The content is quite thrilling, the form, well… it’s pretty boring. Unless your idea of excitement involves watching scene after scene of men in horrible corduroy suits (I see you, Miranda Hobbs) drinking coffee, having meetings with other men in bad suits, typing news reports, hanging around sketchy parking garages, sorting interview notes in messy apartments, making phone calls, chilling at libraries, shaking down witnesses over respectful lunches served with refreshing iced tea or any other gerund laden descriptions of mundane activities I didn’t list. Oddly enough, that’s the point of many great political thrillers – to show you the conception, pregnancy, labor pains, birth and the baby. If I’m not reaching for the Ativan while a protag rifles through a purloined briefcase, file cabinet or desk drawer, then I’m not having an authentic political thriller experience. People need to be slamming down phones with aplomb (I miss those sturdy 70s phones), notes need some coffee rings and my goodness, I need my sources dodgy as hell.
- Connect the dots.
Yellow legal pads are preferable, but steno pads, loose leaf paper and tiny, expensive notebooks work as well. The key here is two pens: one black/blue and one red. Black’s for scrawling out scandalous names and the red for circling those names repeatedly while they issue terse denials seconds before introducing you to a new source, Tone – dial tone.
- Female informants must be reluctant and foxy!
The more conventionally attractive the female informant, the more evasive she’ll be and she’ll also know everything you need to know, which is why it’s helpful she’s so effing foxy. It’s a lot easier to shake down a informant if the male protag really wants to shake her down. Butter her up with some endless chow chow about her preternatural foxiness. Foxy informant, you read my mind!
- I want my contact with you on the side, and a slice of apple pie, with strawberry ice cream. I want the pie heated, unless you don’t have apple pie…
Shadowy sources have host of requirements – not unlike Sally Albright – before they will agree to tell you everything. Thankfully, they are more than happy to list their demands, but of course this is usually after they’ve cussed you out for contacting them in the first place.
- My friends call me Mark, however, you must call me “Deep Throat”
Shadowy figures in addition to being particularly knowledgeable love to saddle themselves with pr0nny sounding code names. Nevertheless, if you wish to utilize their services you must always call them by their pr0nny sounding code name – even to your superiors, who will roll their eyes, sigh and say something like, “I want to you stick with this Deep Throat character like glue. Really marry yourself to the concept.”
All the President’s Men is available on Netflix Instant View and in $3.99 grocery store bargain bins everywhere.