What kind of crazy story is this?: “All the President’s Men” (1976)

Standard

By Scott Ross

all-the-presidents-men-movie-poster-1976-1020270638Los Angels, CA. May, 2011. Richard Stayton writes a compelling piece in the Writers Guild of America (West) magazine Written By (http://bluetoad.com/publication/?i=67460), responding to claims made by Robert Redford that he and the late film director Alan J. Pakula completely re-wrote William Goldman’s Academy Award-winning screenplay for All the President’s Men, further insisting that only 10 per cent of Goldman’s work remained in the completed film. Redford, who as progenitor and producer of the movie (and indeed, as unofficial godfather to the original Bob Woodward/Carl Bernstein book) treated his scenarist with appalling condescension during the re-writing, insisting that Goldman read an un-commissioned script Bernstein and his then-girlfriend (later, wife; still later, famously ex-wife) Nora Ephron had cobbled up emphasizing — in Goldman’s tart phrase — that Carl “sure was catnip to the ladies,” an act the screenwriter quite properly regarded as “a gutless betrayal.” He didn’t add this, so I will: Particularly since it was Goldman’s original screenplay Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid that made Redford a movie star and that it was the author who recommended Redford’s casting as Sundance.

On one of supplemental documentaries featured in the 2006 DVD reissue of ATPM, Redford claims as well that he and Pakula “re-structured” Goldman’s work from top to bottom before filming. If William Goldman is famous for nothing else (and he is, of course, famous for many things, or was, back when people still read books) it is as the author of two statements, one about Hollywood’s endless and panicky chase after the Next Big Thing (“Nobody knows anything”) and this, on his craft: “Screenplays are structure.” That Goldman, who suggested what now, in hindsight, seems the most obvious, simple means of cracking that book’s screen adaptation (throw out the second half) and who, say what you will about the quality of his individual novels and scripts, is absolutely solid on structure, needed  an actor and a director, however gifted, to give his work that very element is, on the face of it, absurd.*

William Goldman

William Goldman

Back to May, 2011. Richard Stayton suspects all of this too, but goes much further. Through dogged, painstaking research, which involves (among other things) reading every single draft he could get his hands on that Goldman wrote for ATPM and comparing that work to the film as it has stood since 1976, he concludes that William Goldman and William Goldman alone, wrote the screenplay. I would take this a step further. It’s my understanding of WGA nominating practice for its own awards (and god knows the rules may have changed in the years since I came across this factoid in Harlan Ellison’s book on the “City on the Edge of Forever” episode of Star Trek) that the screenwriting committee making said nominations reads those screenplays. They may also compare them to either the completed movie or to continuity scripts (essentially, transcripts of the finished film after editing.) In any case, the WGA duly conferred on Goldman its Best Adapted Drama award for ATPM. I have no idea what procedures the Academy screenwriters committee undertakes, but they may be similar. Yet I would go further still: Neither Redford nor Pakula applied for arbitration with the Screen Writers Guild for credit on this movie they, according to Redford, completely re-wrote.**

The astonishing overhead dissolves at the LOC.

The astonishing overhead dissolves at the LOC.

I preface my remarks on ATPM with all of this in part because what Stayton did to prove the provenance of the screenplay is precisely what “Woodstein” undertook to unravel the mysteries attendant to the June, 1972 break-in at National Democratic Headquarters, and what the movie of their book is really all about. And here Goldman and Pakula, whatever the latter may have said to Redford, certainly agree: The movie is filled with examples of the sheer, mind-numbing, foot-wearying legwork Woodward and Bernstein went through, and which at that time was the hallmark of American journalism. Indeed, the highest moment in the movie (no pun intended) is an explication of exactly that. Faced with stacks and stacks of Library of Congress check-out cards, some of which might implicate E. Howard Hunt, the pair digs in. The movie cuts to a shot from above, of Redford and Hoffman at the table, scouring the cards. Pakula and his superb cinematographer, Gordon Willis, then dissolve to a higher vantage-point, the two Washington Post reporters swallowed up by the reading room, the cards spreading out before them like a small paper flood. They dissolve again, to an even higher overheard shot, almost a god’s-eye view that renders “Woodstein” as ants to a forest floor. That this search ultimately proves fruitless is unimportant;it conveys the lengths to which two dedicated journalists go to nail down the facts they need to buttress their suppositions.

men

The metaphor is repeated, in various ways, throughout the movie: Hoffman or Redford dwarfed by government buildings, or Redford’s car, seen via a helicopter shot, disappearing on the Washington streets. To a city whose very institutions, represented by those massive buildings, regard them as insignificant, Woodward and Bernstein are puny. Unnoticed, and unnoticeable. At least until they hit pay-dirt. For my generation of writers, Woodward and Bernstein were heroes. Not because their investigation ultimately led to the resignation of a notably hated President (although that was delicious icing on the cake) but because their work, unappreciated at first, thorough and irrefutable at last, was, to us, a shining example of why newspaper journalism existed, and was so terribly important to the life of the Republic. Legions of us became (or wanted to become) would-be Woodsteins because of their example. Alas, far too few of us wanted the grinding, exhaustive, shoe leather-thinning grunt-work that went into it. And fewer still, in this age of 24/7 cable news, instant celebrity and the blogosphere, practice it. Why dig up the facts when you can present rumor, or (even better) just make up your own “facts”? Why ask questions, and seek their answers, if airing innuendo will get you the fame and the book-deal and the featured position on Fox? They all all want to be Woodstein. What they don’t want is to have to do the work.

Redford as Woodward struggles to hear Kenneth Dahlberg over the noise of the Post newsroom in this riveting scene.

Redford as Woodward struggles to hear Kenneth Dahlberg over the noise of the Post newsroom in this riveting scene.

In this regard, if in no other, All the President’s Men looks better with every passing year. It is, however, a movie of rare intelligence, filled with pleasures. Aside from the improbability, in this age of corporate media consolidation, short attention spans and internet profusion, of a Woodward and Bernstein ever being able to latch on to a story of its like or magnitude and follow the crumbs to its ultimate conclusion, it is nearly impossible to imagine a movie like this being made today, at least in Hollywood. As such it fits neatly into that brief, shining moment, the glory that was 1970s cinema. Few studio suits now would consider green-lighting a movie in which politics are central, recognizable and fully-explicated human characters fill every frame, the outcome is already known, and a considerable portion of its greatness, and its concomitant tension, arise from long, close, unbroken shots of its stars talking on the telephone. Two such sequences in particular (one each for Redford and Hoffman) show the power of fine dramatic writing, good acting, and assured direction by people who weren’t afraid, as filmmakers are now, of holding on an actor in a medium close shot for several minutes. (Would a mass audience even put up with it now?)

Jane Alexander as the unnamed CREEP bookkeeper.

Jane Alexander as the unnamed CREEP bookkeeper.

Pakula must also be accorded credit, along with Willis,  for the prevailing aura of increasingly justifiable paranoia the movie generates. This was something of a Pakula specialty; his previous films as a director included The Parallax View and Klute, which form with All the President’s Men a kind of unholy trinity of anxious national obsession. That he was clearly an actor’s director is made manifest in the performances in these movies, from the smallest to the largest, and by his astute sense of casting. ATPM, like another Redford hit, The Sting, benefits from one of the finest all-around supporting casts of the period: Jason Robards (Ben Bradley), Jack Warden (Harry Rosenfeld), Martin Balsam (Howard Simons), the magnificent Jane Alexander giving a virtual master-class on screening acting in two scenes as the frightened, angry Committee to Re-elect bookkeeper, and Robert Walden as an amiable, anxious Donald Zegretti. And, in smaller but no less telling or important roles: Meredith Baxter, Ned Beatty, Polly Holliday, James Karen, Stephen Collins, Penny Fuller, John McMartin, Nicholas Coster, Lindsay Crouse and Neva Patterson.

Hal Holbrook, deep in shadow as Deep Throat.

Hal Holbrook, deep in shadow as Deep Throat.

And that is not even to mention Hal Holbrook’s mesmerizing turn as “Deep Throat” (now known to have been the former FBI Deputy Director Mark Felt.) It was to Deep Throat that Goldman assigned the script’s most famous (and wholly fictitious) line, “Follow the money.” But there is far more to the role than unintentional catch-phrases, and far more to Holbrook’s riveting performance than shadow and cigarettes.† Veiled in more ways than merely the visual, Holbrook’s Deep Throat is, despite a certain, indefinable, air of the sinister, also a man outraged, disappointed and disgusted by the Nixon Administration’s utter contempt for the law, the Constitution, and the American people. (Although it has been suggested that Mark Felt was equally livid at being passed over for the Directorship of the agency after Hoover’s death.) And it is in these scenes that Goldman lands some his most apposite dialogue. Some of it may come from Felt’s own remarks in the book — it’s been a few years since I last read it — but in either case, many of the movie Deep Throat’s observations are as relevant now as they were then, if not more so:

Look: Forget the myths the media’s created about the White House. The truth is, these are not very bright guys, and things got out of hand.

I don’t like newspapers. I don’t care for inexactitude and shallowness.

The superb Jason Robards as Ben Bradley.

The marvelous Jason Robards as Ben Bradley.

Willis’ lighting is superb throughout, from his strong depth-of-focus that keeps every image crisp and allows the viewer a firm grasp of everything in the frame to the way he darkens the surroundings as the central mystery itself becomes more circuitous and frightening. In a career whose highlights included Klute, The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, The Parallax View, Annie Hall, Manhattan, Pennies from Heaven, Zelig and Broadway Danny Rose, Willis’ work here stands as a veritable exemplar of his devotion to craft, and clarity, as well as to un-self-conscious art. Equally worthy of praise is George Jenkins’ set design and the set decor of George Gaines, which include a meticulous re-creation of the Post‘s pressroom, and the quietly effective editing of Robert L. Wolfe. David Shire’s uncannily effective, abbreviated score deserves special mention. It’s brief (less than 12 minutes) and there isn’t a note heard until 30 minutes in, yet this spare, splendidly-spotted music — essentially winds, brass, strings and an unemphatic but effectual synthesizer — performs miracle work in its subtle suggestion of a subcutaneous un-ease that slowly becomes pervasive, and quietly terrifying.

In this year, which has just seen the 42nd anniversary of the Watergate break-in and will soon commemorate the 40th year since Nixon’s characteristically worm-like resignation, and in a world (and a country) that is essentially unrecognizable to those of us who lived through these events and dared to dream that Woodward and Bernstein might, in their dogged, unassuming fashion, have helped to create a new political reality, it is incumbent upon us to revisit these crucial events, the meticulous, careful investigative journalism that exposed them, and the nearly flawless movie that evolved from both… and which was enormously successful.

Look on these works, and despair.

The past is a foreign country.

Alas.

Pakula - All the Presidents Men (TIME)

All text (other than Goldman’s) copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

*Goldman, perhaps wisely, did not comment on the controversy. In an emailed response to Stayton’s request for discussion he wrote, “Thanks for thinking of me. It was not a happy experience, and I don’t want to write about it anymore.” (In his influential Adventures in the Screen Trade, Goldman wrote: “If you were to ask me, ‘What would you change if you had your movie life to live over?’ I’d tell you that I’d have written exactly all the screenplays I’ve written. Only I wouldn’t have come near All The President’s Men.”

**I would never suggest that Pakula filmed every word or scene exactly as Goldman dictated. Nearly every movie is altered, to some degree, by its making. Circumstances change. Locations are switched. Scenes are cut. New sequences may be added. Actors improvise. (Dustin Hoffman, in one of those ATPM documentaries, makes the ludicrous claim that “you don’t film the script”; apparently, you film what Dustin Hoffman decides to do, and say.)

†It is not unreasonable to suggest that Chris Carter was inspired by Holbrook, and his cigarettes, when he created “The Smoking Man” for X-Files.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s