On June the first, 1972, at the Watergate Hotel in Washington, a security guard was doing his rounds when he noticed something suspicious in one of the offices and investigated. It turned out there was a burglary taking place, with a number of men who were caught redhanded, which would not necessarily have been important news except that the offices there were being used by the Democratic Party as a base of operations as they were trying to get their candidate elected to President to topple Richard Nixon. At the Washington Post newspaper, it sounds interesting but nothing major, so one of the lower level reporters, Bob Woodward (Robert Redford), went along to the courts to find out more...
The first thing that struck him was to wonder why a powerful lawyer was sitting in on the court as the charges were being applied to the burglars, and when he noticed one of them claimed to have connections to the C.I.A., his interest was further piqued. Back in 1976, everyone knew what happened next, the story of the Watergate scandal was one of the most sensational crimes of the latter half of the twenty-first century and rocked the United States to its foundations, as seen in the way a paranoia, a mistrust of the authorities, bled into the pop culture. It had been there before in the counterculture-friendly movies and those works trying to appeal to the younger generation, but when it became clear the President himself had been heavily involved in the conspiracy, the idea spread like wildfire.
So what would you do when the time came to tell the story of the actual events, rather than simply alluding to them in your thrillers or comedies or whatever? Robert Redford was very keen to get that tale onto the world's movie screens, and he encouraged the two journalists who had broken the story, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, to get their experiences down in print so he could option the book and produce the film. Fair enough, said the studio, but we want you to star, and who could they get to appear alongside him as Bernstein? Step forward one of the other megastars of the seventies, Dustin Hoffman, a dream team of celebrity charisma that you can't imagine the actual men they were portraying had any issue with whatsoever. Some felt this tendency to feed a number of huge egos harmed the film, but they were wrong.
That was because by making Woodward and Bernstein appear as the big hitters they thought they were, we in the audience could buy into that as well, and we needed two stars we could rely upon, to embody that dogged search for truth, that rendered their crusade understandable: heroic movie stars do heroic things, after all, and director Alan J. Pakula was careful to make the importance of their investigation as weighty as possible. Who are these sinister forces who would try to break those idols? Not the journalists, the movie stars. This was brilliantly handled by Pakula who drew on the skills of generating unease, that feeling you know something is very wrong but you cannot place your finger on it, nowhere more so than in his depiction of the villains of the piece.
Or rather, the non-depiction, for the massed menaces of the Republican Party, the White House and the Secret Services are glimpsed on television, or occasionally make threats on the telephone as the protagonists try to get them to admit to their wrongdoings, which made them come across as a vast network of intimidation and outright fear, as seen on the faces of the actors who play the reluctant sources for the story. William Goldman wrote the script, and claimed it was one of the worst professional experiences of his life such were the pressure and interference he was lumbered with, but it was worth it (if not for his frayed nerves) for it took an extremely complicated story and made sense of it, mostly because he has Redford and Hoffman give other characters a rundown of where they are in the investigation which serves to keep us up to speed.
Emphasising the sheer crushing need to gather the facts at as deliberate a pace as you can, whether that be going through files and records or those endless interviews, it left you in no doubt that it took a special kind of dedication to bring something this shadowy into the light, and Pakula used that darkness impeccably, with a lot of scenes shot at night, including Woodward's famous talks with his anonymous contact Deep Throat (Hal Holbrook) in an underground car park, to contrast with the brightness of the Post newsroom set. Not one actor put a foot wrong, from the big stars to the support, with Jason Robards Jr a superb Ben Bradlee, pedantic but when his boys finally get hold of the facts, willing to back them all the way when he realises they are genuinely on to a huge story. Some complained the film ended prematurely, but it actually ends with stark finesse, we knew what happened next and it was all over bar the shouting - and what a lot of shouting there was. A real classic dedicated to the truth at no expense to itself, no matter the desperate consequences. Music, sparsely used, by David Shire.
As the eighties dawned, Pakula had a hit with Holocaust drama Sophie's Choice, but seemed to lose his touch thereafter with middling efforts such as the odd drama Dream Lover, expensive flop Orphans, hit thriller Presumed Innocent, failure Consenting Adults, Julia Roberts vehicle The Pelican Brief and Harrison Ford-Brad Pitt team up The Devil's Own. He was once married to actress Hope Lange and died in a road accident.