Sometimes we get so caught up in what’s coming out next at the cinema that we forget to look back at what we might have missed. We got thinking about this, and our reviewers decided to examine some cinema from the year that they were born.
The year 1976 may have had one of the strongest line-ups of Academy Award Best Picture nominees ever assembled. At the following year’s ceremony four of the five slots were filled by Taxi Driver, Network, the eventual winner Rocky, and All The President’s Men (Hal Ashby’s Bound for Glory was the fifth). All of these films were reflective of a pessimistic US national outlook in the mid-70s. Taxi Driver is a raw film, dealing with the growing psychosis of an unlikeable lead character. It is also a film that prefaces the growing inability of modern society to be able to discern the difference between fame and infamy. In this regard, Network is somewhat similar, with the Howard Beale character becoming must see TV precisely because he has lost his mind and needs help. Bound for Glory is set during the 1930s depression. Rocky seems like the outlier, as the character is warmer, more likeable, and the story has a sweetness. The film does show, however, the poorer parts of the city, with Rocky living in one room and barely able to clothe and feed himself, plus, remember, he does lose the big fight at the end of that film.
So where does All The President’s Men fit in? On the face of it, it is very much in line with the tough tones and subject matters of its contemporaries: it deals with real-life 1970s America as the previous president, Richard Nixon (his successor, Gerald Ford, was in the White House at the time of this film’s release) found himself forced to resign due to his complicity in the break-in at the Democratic Party HQ in the Watergate Building in Washington DC, in the lead-up to his re-election run in 1972. On the face of it, this was not only criminal, but deeply stupid, given Nixon was likely a lock to win that election.
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The film takes us from June 17 1972, when the bungled burglary occurred, though to Nixon’s inauguration in January 1973. The Washington Post assigns Bob Woodward (a still-active author and journalist who wrote the book Fear about Donald Trump’s administration, played here by Robert Redford). As Bob begins to dig, he learns that the five men involved had electronic surveillance and bugging equipment on them – suggesting the break-in was to uncover dirt on the democrats – and they are all shown to have CIA links. He is quickly able to establish a link to Charles Colson, Special Counsel to President Richard Nixon. Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) – a more experienced journalist with more time in at the Post is assigned to work the story with Woodward. From here on their job is to beef up the threadbare narrative with better sources, on the instruction of Editor Ben Bradlee (an Oscar-winning turn from Jason Robards, portraying the same character as played by Tom Hanks in The Post).
The film reflects the paranoia inherent to so many films of the ’70s conspiracy genre, by having characters unwilling to go on the record, or speaking in riddles, as the growing threat to our protagonists become clear. A source known as Deep Throat (Hal Holbrook) simply tells Woodward to follow the money, while we see our ever more exhausted leads run up against roadblock after roadblock. The frustration is palpable to the audience as they are invited to interview, then repeatedly told they cannot be seen today, come back tomorrow – even after long flights. The need for thoroughness in their sources, and the time this takes – with the two journalists knowing they have a major story and trying to get it out there before the election – leads to an admirable degree of tension, in a story that Americans had lived through only 2-4 years earlier.
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Where the film is probably most reflective of its time is in its refusal to submit to a traditional happy ending (though how “happy” it is proving corruption in the Government is debatable). The film is based on the non-fiction account that the real Woodward and Bernstein wrote in 1974, the year of Nixon’s resignation. Where the book takes the reader through the entire story, to the President leaving office unceremoniously, the film stops on January 20th 1973, the date of the inauguration for his second term. This is, narratively, oddly satisfying, as, figuratively, the two men are planting the bomb under Nixon, just as the TV is showing his smiling face, as he looks to his future, and the second half of his presidency. It is strangely in-keeping with the time, however, that, although they have their story, there would be a note of ambivalence in the minds of both characters; as they are yet to know if this will take down the man.
As such we are left with a film that lives with a moral complexity, and stakes that are not fully resolved in the screen time. A series of dashed-off typewriter missives take us through the following months, to tell the rest of the story. There is a real-life shot of Woodward and Bernstein watching Nixon’s resignation on TV together. More traditionally, this is where such a tale would end. The damage from this episode to the national psyche would likely prohibit any kind of triumphant response in the moment of victory, but perhaps the sad nod of acknowledgement at a unpleasant job well done may have been there in its place. Instead, this being the 1970s – and the year in which even Rocky doesn’t win – we are left with a qualified win. That is all this genre ever gave us – except some of the finest cinema the United States ever produced.