Review: All the President’s Men (1976)

… and with that: the conspiracy thriller is born.

This could be the headline film of a Movies About People Talking festival: no sex, no violence, no physical action – just a series of conversations in office spaces and parking lots, about people we don’t meet, doing things we don’t fully understand, with no single dramatic climax or overtly cinematic payoff – and somehow, it’s riveting.

How does All the President’s Men actually work? How does it build tension, in ways that many films built on its template do not? Performances are key, undeniably: Redford and Hoffman are compelling and charismatic as hungry young reporters Woodward and Bernstein; Jack Warden leading the crew of believable newsmen editors; and Alan J. Pakaula‘s confident, understated direction, allows us moments where we sit and watch, in real time, as someone rotary dials a phone call or types up notes.

But perhaps the biggest star is director of photography Gordon Willis – cinema’s “prince of darkness” (The Godfather trilogy, Klute, Annie Hall) – whose signature underlit style illustrates the journey of the film’s protagonists, tumbling deeper and deeper into a dark conspiracy and their impendingly doomed efforts to uncover the truth and bring facts to light. Witnesses hide in shadows, behind dark furniture, away from surveillance; meetings take place at night, where impotent light bulbs barely outline faces, features, fragments, as the reporters struggle to piece together a truth no one person is willing or able to complete.

But slivers of light in the inky darkness is only the first of the one-two visual punch in Willis’ approach: the other is framing. Whether it’s the reporters being inched out of the frame by the President they are investigating being re-elected, or a long take with an almost imperceptibly slow zoom-in which ultimately becomes claustrophobically tight on a reporter getting painfully close to a shocking truth:

Further reading:

  • “In one eight-year period, he photographed – among others – Klute, The Godfather, The Paper Chase, The Parallax View, The Godfather Part Two, All The President’s Men, Annie Hall, Interiors, and Manhattan” – director / DOP / editor / one-man-film-school Steven Soderbergh‘s chat with Gordon Willis is film geek fireside chat heaven.
  • DoBlu’s review of the All the President’s Men blue ray release selects stills from the movie which illustrate how the film’s themes and plot development is reflected in Willis’ composition, lighting and focus.
  • Speaking of focus: Willis deploys the deep focus technique at certain moments throughout the film – Filmmaker IQ explains what it is and how it works: