Monday, October 5, 2009

Monday Movies Post

The early 1970s were full of conspiracy movies...I think I've talked about the Parallax View (1974) before, and there's Three Days of the Condor (1975), and a lot of the science fiction of the time were in that category: Logan's Run (1976), Soylent Green (1973). Here's an article about some of them.

And then, dropped down in the middle of them all, is a movie set in Washington in which two reporters fight against a massive conspiracy to rig an election and cover it up when things go wrong. It features scared witnesses who suddenly won't talk, the constant threat of death for our intrepid truth-tellers, and spooky late night sessions in a parking garage with a mysterious source who seems to know a lot more than what he's telling. Also, really awesome shots of the Library of Congress Reading Room.

Of course, the one I'm talking about here had the virtue, if you want to call it that, of being true (or at least mostly true). Today's movie is All the President's Men, released in 1976, and starring Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman. Hmmm...I was thinking of it as a conspiracy movie, and did a quick search to refresh my memory, and came across this article by Jay Millikan, who argues that it's the third of director Alan Pakula's conspiracy trilogy along with Parallax View and Klute (1971). Sounds right to me, although I have to admit I've never actually seen Klute. It's on my list. At any rate, I agree that it's the correct lens through which to see President's Men, and of course it makes the other movies of the time better to know that sometimes the most outlandish things really are true.

As far as movie quality...the cast is as good as you're going to get anywhere -- the two stars, and then Jason Robards, Jack Warden, Martin Balsam, Ned Beatty -- hey, I didn't know that F. Murray Abraham shows up. Go figure. There's plenty of good stuff for those of us who watch a lot of TV, too: everyone's favorite mom Meredith Baxter is honest man Hugh Sloan's wife, crack reporter Joe Rossi of the LA Trib (Robert Walden) as dirty trixter Donald Segretti, and even evil Professor Maggie Walsh shows up. And that's without mentioning Hal Holbrook's great job as the shadowy Deep Throat. (I'm sure there are those who care about Stephen Collins, too). Oh, and Dominic Chianese, who was Johnny Ola among other things (he told me about this place. He brought me here). (Oops).

Get the sense that I'm stalling? I know a lot of people think it's a terrific movie, but I don't know. I put it in the category of movies that were way better than they should be been because they were made during the Golden Age, but I don't think it's really a great movie. It moves along fine, and the basic plot works with Redford as the straight-arrow who eventually has to believe that fine upstanding Republicans really did these things. There's not really any junk thrown in to ruin it, no sentimental pap or anything. And yet, I think the conspiracy lens is what keeps it from being a great movie. All the President's Men presents us with a massive evil conspiracy that, by some fluke, is stopped, but there's no sense of real politics here at all, because the conspirators are silent. The only exception is Segretti, and he's neither heavyweight enough (in reality or in the movie) or really inept enough to let us in on the real Watergate. Well, that's not quite it, because I could like it more as a movie even if it was a lot less historically accurate. I guess what I want to say is that this particular movie needs more politics in it; without that, it's a fine entertainment but nothing more, and it's the kind of movie that really needs some more serious meaning to be a great movie. If by some chance you haven't seen it, you certainly should, but that's about the limit of my recommendation.

Now, on to the question of historical accuracy. I'm not so interested in the specific questions of fact, but the general story. And there, All the President's Men has a major problem, which is that the real story of Watergate wasn't one of two intrepid reporters taking down a president. Sure, it's a good story, and sure, what Woodward and Bernstein did was good reporting and good for the nation. But it isn't how the story was broken. For Watergate, as I've said before, I always start with Fred Emery's excellent book, which makes clear that press revelations were mostly peripheral to the real story. Watergate broke open because, first, the conspirators were so incompetent that the Feds quickly nabbed Liddy, Hunt, and McCord; and, second, because once those three were threatened with jail the odds were that one would talk. And once McCord talked, there was never a way to stop everyone else from rushing to cut the best deal they could. The story of Woodward and Bernstein is the story of how we found out about Watergate, but it really isn't the story of how the president was destroyed.

From a politics perspective, the best stuff in All the President's Men is the dynamic between the reporters and Jason Robards (as Ben Bradlee). As far as I can tell, they got that stuff right: the politics of the newsroom, and the thrill of the story. That's good, and worthwhile, and while President's Men isn't the greatest newspaper movie ever (Kane? His Girl Friday?), it does do a good job with the newsroom. So, I'll recommend it as a movie, as a newsroom drama, and as something that you should see because all the other political junkies have seen it. A great movie? No. But lots of fun.

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