Friday, February 18, 2011

ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN (WB 1976) Warner Home Video

The presidency of Richard M. Nixon has been the subject of endless debate - most of it filtered negatively through a very liberal bias in the press that chooses to disregard virtually all of the advanced political strategizing and diplomacies that preceded the Watergate scandal. True enough, no account of the Nixon presidency ought to exclude Watergate from the record. It is a shameless and shabby epitaph.

However, Watergate should not negate the good that preceded it; Nixon's decisive attacks on Cambodia that ended the Vietnam conflict and his ending of military conscription.

Many today forget that it was Nixon who green lit NASA's space shuttle program. It was Nixon's peace talks that opened China to foreign investment opportunities. These are major and enduring accomplishments in the evolution of America that have all but been forgotten by the political layman. In the final analysis, the best that can be said of Richard Nixon is that he held dear to the ideal of aggressive leadership as its own reward - a mantra that unfortunately became his own undoing.

In a long line of film fodder attempting to deconstruct the entirety of the Nixon presidency based on its flawed last act, Alan J. Pakula's All The President's Men (1976) gets Cub Scout honours for being the first, and arguably, the best critique of Watergate, told from the ultimate insider's perspective. In this case, that perspective derives from months of in-depth investigative research conducted by Washington Post journalists Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward.

Woodward and Bernstein's book 'All The President's Men' (published in 1974) was a project long overdue. In fact, the two had toyed with the idea repeatedly but always from the perspective of writing an autonomous 'tell all' rather than an investigative 'how to'. It was actor Robert Redford's inquiry into their project that eventually prompted the book's final approach. Redford saw the story, not as an exposé on the Nixon White House but as a finely wrought deconstruction of the methods by which Woodward and Bernstein came to their own revelations.

In retrospect, Woodward and Bernstein are responsible for the toppling of Richard Nixon - their weekly columns on Watergate in The Post gradually eroding the premise of 'national security' by uncovering the seedy details to reveal corruption at the highest levels of office. The book and the film that followed it two years later are fairly straight forward accounts of that historical record and it is saying much of Redford, Pakula and their cast, that in making the movie they eschewed traditional Hollywood clichés that might have otherwise transformed the film into just another puffed up and blown out thriller with a political underbelly.

The initial rights to the property were purchased by Redford. But the original script by William Goldman was considered a mess. Bernstein, along with screenwriter Nora Ephron made their own attempts, but these veered too far from the tone of realism that Redford wanted for the film.

Meanwhile, Post Editor in Chief Ben Bradlee (played in the film by Jason Robards) contacted Redford to offer his own support behind the film, provided it gingerly tread on 'freedom of the press' and put newspaper reporting in a positive light. Eventually, Pakula and Redford went back to the Goldman script, rewriting portions to remain more faithful to Woodward and Bernstein's original text.

The film begins with the June 1972 break in inside the Democratic National Committee's offices of the Watergate Building. The burglars are first spotted by security guard Frank Wills (playing himself) and promptly arrested. At the Washington Post, editor Harry Rosenfeld (Jack Warden) assigns inexperienced reporter Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) to cover what is first perceived to be an insignificant story. Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) is hungry for the story even though he is on the verge of being fired for lack on initiative. Working independently from Woodward at first, Bernstein eventually shares his investigative research and together the two set about to uncover more leads.

Woodward begins his rather clumsy approach to research by telephoning one dead end lead after the next - most refusing to offer him anything of printable value. Eventually, he stumbles across five Cuban Americans from Miami and James W. McCord (Richard Herd) - who have hired a high powered attorney to defend them in court. During these proceedings McCord identifies himself as having recently left the CIA. This morsel of information proves to be the flashpoint for Woodward's investigation. He connects the burglars to Howard Hunt - a former CIA agent working for Nixon under Special Counsel Charles Colson.

Although Woodward and Bernstein's investigation has uncovered sufficient evidence of a cover up, The Post's executive editor Ben Bradlee (Jason Robards) is not yet entirely convinced their work is ready for the front page. His concerns are not unwarranted and this leads Woodward to his contact with Deep Throat (Hal Holbrook); an anonymous senior government official who contacts him through copies of The Times and a red flag planted in a flowerpot on Woodward's apartment balcony. The two repeatedly meet in secret inside a dimly lit underground parking garage. Although Deep Throat speaks mostly in platitudes and metaphors, he is constantly encouraging Woodward to 'follow the money'.

Fearing reprisals, Bradlee dislikes Woodward and Bernstein's reliance on this anonymous source to write their copy. Bradlee encourages his reporters to find more people willing to come forward in the scandal. Through CRP treasurer Hugh W. Sloan Jr. (Stephen Collins), the duo reveal a secret slush fund controlled by Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman. As the White House issues more and more non-denial denials of the Post's copy, Bradlee begins to suspect that the narrative Woodward and Bernstein are writing may just become the most earth-shattering political story of the 20th century.

During their last secretive meeting, Deep Throat warns Woodward that the cover up has not been to conceal the identity of the burglars, but rather the covert operations of the entire intelligence community. Deep Throat's ominous warning - that all of their lives are in danger - sets up a final note of extreme paranoia. The film concludes with a blitz of Telex headlines revealing the rapid escalation of conspiracies inside the White House that are stripped bare by Woodward and Bernstein's stellar reporting.

As a semi-biographical account of that pivotal moment in American history, All The President's Men admirably succeeds. It is a time capsule of a very unflattering moment in the political fabric of the United States. As pure entertainment, however, the film does tend to lag. Its revelations are rather emotionlessly revealed. This, of course, is to the point of Redford and Pakula's desire to deliver an honest 'fact based' account of the story as it happened. However, in doing so, the director and its star have largely forgotten that what is gripping in print is rarely as compelling on the screen; the two mediums irreconcilable while problematically coming together herein.

This oversight would be permissible if the on screen chemistry between Redford and Hoffman had clicked. Mostly, however, it does not, with Hoffman clearly proving to be the superior actor in the film even though he is given less to do than Redford. As such, we are left with rather wooden performances from both actors without standout moments of brilliance by either. The supporting cast are all highly proficient in their craft, but again, none seem to step from the shadows long enough to make any sort of major contribution to the overall arch of the story. At best then, All The President's Men is a moving tableau that plays as almost literal translation of the Woodward/Bernstein book.

Warner Home Video's new Blu-ray is housed in a digi-book with 40 glossy pages of superficial snippets about the film. The transfer however, is less than impressive. Although the image is a quantum improvement over previously issued DVD incarnations, the image still looks very 'clumpy' with a thickness that seems unnatural. Blu-Ray colors are bolder but also much more garish and equally unnatural in appearance.

Exterior scenes exhibit cartoonish 'greens' in grass and trees. Flesh tones throughout are very ruddy. Robert Redford's blonde hair is, at times, a dirty cornflower yellow while Hoffman's brown locks mostly register as jet black.

This isn't a transfer to marvel at the refinement of fine details either. The image throughout is mostly flat, pasty and lacking in spatiality. There is an abundant amount of film grain that has arguably been naturally reproduced. Age related blemishes evident in earlier incarnations of the film are absent on the Blu-ray. The audio has been faithfully reproduced in mono.

Extras are direct imports from Warner's previously issued 2 disc SE DVD and are presented in standard def. These include an informative, though occasionally meandering audio track from Robert Redford. There's also several featurettes on the making of the film, Woodward and Bernstein, the real life events that led to the investigation, Deep Throat's involvement, a vintage interview with Jason Robards on the Dinah Shore Show and the film's theatrical trailer.

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)






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