The American Society of Cinematographers

Loyalty • Progress • Artistry
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Return to Table of Contents April 2011 Return to Table of Contents
Hanna
Post Focus
Presidents Desk
DVD Playback
All the Presidents
Sound of Music
Tall Dark Stranger
ASC Close-Up
All the Presidents Men (1976)
Blu-ray Edition
1.85:1 (High Definition 1080p)
DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0
Warner Home Video, $34.99




When producer and star Robert Redford shopped All the President’s Men around to the studios in the mid-1970s, his pitch met with almost universal indifference. In addition to the conventional wisdom that political subjects are box-office poison, All the President’s Men had the problem of being based on an historical moment — the Watergate break-in and cover-up — so recent everyone already knew the ending of the story and was sick of hearing about it. Redford believed in the project and refused to take “no” for an answer, however, and eight Oscar nominations and several million box-office dollars later, his passion was vindicated.

Redford’s feeling all along was that audiences might be familiar with the broad strokes of the Watergate story and its role in forcing President Richard Nixon to resign, but that the narrative could be made fresh by following the young journalists whose dogged investigative reporting broke the story. Bob Woodward (played by Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) were opposites thrust together by the Watergate scandal, which would become a defining moment not only for the country, but also for their careers. In All the President’s Men, screenwriter William Goldman turns Woodward and Bernstein’s investigation into a riveting detective story in which the heroes, aided by informants like the infamous Deep Throat (Hal Holbrook), relentlessly pursue the truth.

The problem of creating suspense when the whole audience knows the outcome of the mystery is largely solved through sheer filmmaking craft. Director Alan J. Pakula and cinematographer Gordon Willis, ASC, are as obsessive in their attention to detail as the film’s young protagonists, and their attention to the smallest minutiae as well as the larger overall picture immerses the viewer in the drama. Woodward and Bernstein are constantly dwarfed by the looming architecture of Washington, D.C., in shots that emphasize the enormous institutions they are up against, and these shots are given added impact when juxtaposed against images that go in the other direction, presenting the small details and leads the reporters have to chase down to fill in the blanks. Willis beautifully dramatizes this tension in one shot as Woodward and Bernstein search for information on checkout slips in the Library of Congress; the camera begins on a close-up of the tiny slips of paper and then pulls back all the way to the ceiling, emphasizing the “needle in a haystack” quality of the reporters’ investigation.

Throughout the film, Willis and Pakula manage to keep the focus on Woodward and Bernstein’s quest while maintaining an awareness of not only the forces against them, but also the general indifference of the Washington establishment. In several deep-focus shots (often aided by split diopters), one of the protagonists is seen in close-up on the phone while, elsewhere in the newsroom, his colleagues pay attention to other — ostensibly more important — stories and events. These newsroom shots, which are brightly lit with fluorescents and have an extreme depth of field, are a terrific contrast to the night exteriors. When Woodward is chasing down clues in dimly lit streets and garages, the sense of paranoid fear is pervasive because the generous point of view the camera maintains in the rest of the film is missing — we have no idea who or what is lurking in the shadows.    

Warner Bros. has long been a studio that takes its catalog titles seriously and lavishes great care on reissues, and the All the President’s Men Blu-ray is no exception. The increased resolution of the Blu-ray format is most evident in the dark scenes for which Willis is famous; when Woodard meets Deep Throat in a parking garage and Willis lights only the informant’s eyes and smoke, the depth and shadow details are extraordinary. Colors in the newsroom are more robust than on previous DVD releases, and the flesh tones and grain are more accurate as well. Purists will be happy to note Warners has avoided the temptation to repurpose the sound for a 5.1 or 7.1 mix, opting instead for a digital remastering of the original stereo soundtrack with great fidelity and clarity.

With the exception of a nicely illustrated booklet containing profiles and production notes, the extras are all carried over from the previous special edition of All the President’s Men. Filmmaker Gary Leva provides three top-notch featurettes totaling an hour in length: “Telling the Truth About Lies: The Making of All the President’s Men”; “Woodward and Bernstein: Lighting the Fire” and “Out of the Shadows: The Man Who Was Deep Throat.” The first of these is especially informative, in that it contains insightful interviews with Willis, Hoffman and Redford in which they discuss their creative choices and processes. Redford also provides an indispensable commentary track addressing nearly every aspect of production, from development to release, and two vintage featurettes (a 10-minute making-of documentary and a seven-minute Jason Robards interview from “Dinah!”) are included as well. A theatrical re-release trailer rounds out the set.   

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