PPM Picks is a weekly feature offering film, book, or music recommendations from our staff. The links provided in the article go to product listings on Amazon. Purchases made using these links support the Presidential Pet Museum. That said, we were not paid to review or promote any of the items mentioned. We just legitimately like them.
by Andrew Hager, Historian-in-residence
It’s the holiday season, which means it’s time for Important films to give us Messages on Weighty Themes. The studios save many such films for the end of December, hoping awards-season voters will take note.
One 2017 Oscar hopeful is Steven Spielberg’s The Post, which follows Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) and publisher Katherine Graham (Meryl Streep) as they decide whether or not to publish the Pentagon Papers and make an enemy of President Richard Nixon. I haven’t seen The Post yet, but its subject matter and characters cannot help but remind me of another film about Nixon-era journalism, Alan J. Pakula’s 1976 masterpiece, All the President’s Men.
All the President’s Men begins with the botched break-in of Democratic headquarters at the Watergate Hotel in June 1972 and follows reporters Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) as they doggedly uncover the roots of the crime. Those journalists, you probably know, worked for the Washington Post under the editorial direction of Ben Brsdlee (played here by an Oscar-winning Jason Robards). They eventually uncovered enough dirt to end Richard Nixon’s presidency mid-term.
it can be difficult to present well-known events onscreen, but the film’s most impressive attribute is actually its understated, straightforward storytelling. There are no car chases or explosions or pop songs or romantic interests–just journalists making phone calls, interviewing sources, typing, and conferring with their bosses. The filmmakers chose to remain faithful to history, without massaging the facts for the screen. It works brilliantly. What could have been a deadly dull docudrama builds both tension and paranoia, with cinematographer Gordon Willis’s striking visuals adding an extra layer of menace to the proceedings.
All the President’s Men rewards repeat viewings. The subtle script, the chemistry between Redford and Hoffman, and the great supporting cast provide ample pleasure, especially if you haven’t seen the film in years.
Of note is the Special Edition blu-ray which Warner Brothers released a few years ago. It has typical features–trailers, vintage interviews, an insightful feature-length commentary track from Redford–but there’s a substantial bonus, too. The second disc contains a full-length documentary called All the President’s Men Revisited, which contextualizes the movie and provides a concise, powerful recounting of the entire Watergate scandal. The film’s stars appear (Redford narrates), but the true focal point is President Nixon, seen in archival footage and speeches but, more importantly, heard on tape. For those of us born after his resignation, it can be difficult to separate the president from the caricature. Here he feels more complexly human than anywhere this side of Oliver Stone’s brilliant Nixon (but that’s a movie for another essay).