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Finally, a political thriller that says the good guys can win

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Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: The throwback D.C. conspiracy theories of Captain America: The Winter Soldier have us thinking back on the best political thrillers of the 1970s.

All The President’s Men (1976)

To call All The President’s Men a “political thriller” is to acknowledge a different kind of thrill than the one provided by the era’s other sterling genre examples. Like every other movie highlighted this week, Alan J. Pakula’s 1976 procedural reflects a general disillusionment with government, mirroring the distrust of the times, while unraveling an insidious conspiracy. But while those films are fictional fantasies, variably plausible in their paranoia, All The President’s Men draws inspiration from a very real source—namely, a nonfiction account by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, the Washington Post reporters whose investigation into Watergate helped break the scandal to the public. More than that, however, the movie is also a credibly mundane vision of muckraking, in which exposing wrongdoing comes down less to car chases and daring espionage than to making cold calls, going door to door for interviews, and spending long hours pouring over potentially pertinent documents. Being “thrilled” by the film depends on being excited by the legwork of hard-hitting journalism.


That’s not to say there’s no element of danger at play. When Woodward (Robert Redford) and Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) pull up chairs at the Library Of Congress, going through a thick stack of requests name by name, the camera slowly pulls back into a bird’s-eye view, a couple of dissolves eventually revealing the full scope of the room. Beyond the thematic relevance—the two men are just starting to grasp how big their story is and how far it reaches down the corridors of power—this famous sequence also conveys a strong hint of surveillance. That the threat is never really personified, as a man with a gun or any comparably detectable opponent, actually amplifies the menace: The deeper Woodward and Bernstein dig, the more Pakula suggests that invisible forces are conspiring around them. As a result, public spaces—like the parking garage where Woodward meets the enigmatic Deep Throat (Hal Holbrook)—become environments of vague, overwhelming unease.

For the most part, though, All The President’s Men operates in the insular world of news reporting, a vocation the film celebrates by getting into the exhilarating (and sometimes tedious) nitty gritty of chasing a lead. Never more compelling than when simply locked in close on the faces of its protagonists as they try to pry vital information during phone conversations, the movie earnestly believes in the righteous power of a free press. Therein lies its true deviation from the conventions of the ’70s political thriller: In depicting how two intrepid writers helped topple a crook, All The President’s Men offers a corrective to the prevailing cynicism of the genre. The bad guys can be vanquished, the poisonous corruption can be uprooted. It just takes a willingness to spend a chunk of your day in a bullpen, one hand on the dial, the other on a keyboard.


Availability: All The President’s Men is available on Blu-ray and DVD, which can be obtained from Netflix, and to rent or purchase through the major digital services.