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Cinemalphabet: A is for All the President’s Men (1976)

December 1, 2010

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:

  1. They don’t make great ones much anymore.
  2. 1976’s All The President’s Men is the most tropetastic of the bunch.

Hoffman and Redford shutting down those shags

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.

(via Roger Ebert’s Website)

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.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. December 2, 2010 12:52 pm

    I think the mundane touches are part of what give this film the feeling of authenticity… kind of like what The Candidate did for political films.

  2. AnthroK8 permalink
    December 4, 2010 4:35 pm

    I feel like this about that new Valerie Plame movie. I was kind of riveted. But at the same time I was mystified about why, since what happened is, Naomi Watts strode purposefully in business suits around Washington/ Cairo/ Kuala Lumpur, looking very competent indeed. And Sean Penn ran his hands through his really rather greasy hair, ate dinner, and stared at piles of paper and computer screens.

    And yet… riveting.

    Have you seen the BBC mini series State of Play? Same thing. Shuffling paper, taking the underground, typing, and INTRIGUE!!!!!!!! Riveting.

  3. December 4, 2010 5:30 pm

    Firstly, best description of Fair Game ever!

    Have you seen the BBC mini series State of Play? Same thing. Shuffling paper, taking the underground, typing, and INTRIGUE!!!!!!!! Riveting.

    Ooh, I want to check this out. I love those kinds of television events.

  4. AnthroK8 permalink
    December 6, 2010 1:49 pm

    And all of Plame/Watts’ suits were grey, just to up the “nothing to see here” ante! And yet I left the cinema just so very renewed in my upset at Gee-Dub et al. When Scooter Libby is making the CIA analysts cry with his oily, slippery smug face… I so relate. It was like the physical embodiment of Things People Do That Make A Teacher Want To Implode- deliberate densness, conversation derailing/ hijacking, commitment to terrible use of poor evidence. Cheating. Libby… God’s worst student, but with a career.

    State of Play was made into a good-ish feature film with that vaguely unpleasant Australian Gladiator Guy as the journalist, Ben Affleck as the eminently handsome, yet greasy politician, and Rachel MacAdams and Helen Mirren do a nice job of being career women on either end of the career path.

    But the BBC series was just so much better. For one thing, I love how the BBC has people in their shows that aren’t uniformly conventionally good looking. So, if they’re attractive, they have to be attractive using other skills besides conventional attractiveness. Like, sometimes it’s all in the being witty, or whatever.

    And they had more time to unwind the intrigue. So it’s four hours of striding, taking the tube, stacks of paper, scribbling notes, and flipping through documents and file folders. It just made the underhandedness so interesting, despite the boredom inherant in watching people type.

    It was great.

  5. AnthroK8 permalink
    December 6, 2010 1:51 pm

    Also, you can play Name That British Character Actor And The Role They Played in A Masterpiece Myster/ Foyle’s War/ Doctor Who/ Feature Film game. It’s kind of like Love Actually that way.

    In particular, Kelly Macdonald makes the series.

  6. December 6, 2010 4:16 pm

    But the BBC series was just so much better. For one thing, I love how the BBC has people in their shows that aren’t uniformly conventionally good looking. So, if they’re attractive, they have to be attractive using other skills besides conventional attractiveness. Like, sometimes it’s all in the being witty, or whatever.

    So true! Totally reminds me Love Actually. I am all about some Kelly Macdonald.

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