Two Washington Post journalists, Bob Woodward (Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Hoffman), investigating a routine break-in at the Democratic Party Headquarters at the Watergate Building, happen upon the story of the century. A dirty tricks campaign that may lead all the way to the Oval Office.
Taking such a detailed, realistic, and unshowy approach to Woodward and Bernstein’s dry account of their fateful investigation, was a risky venture for Alan J. Pakula, a sturdy enough director of middle-brow Hollywood thrillers. With a narrative so resolutely shorn of subplots and characterisation; two stars striving to shed their glamorous skins to reveal ordinary, hard-working men; and a gloomy, intricate, talky plot – audiences were likely to be heard falling over themselves to get away from the cinema.
That was the risk, the result is one of modern American film’s most intelligent and provocative accounts of a nation’s political failings, and a near-perfect depiction of journalism at its purist and most inspired. To be more succinct, it is quite brilliant.
Tension strains and tears at our nerves from the off as the two reporters are hardly well-matched as they spar and nag at each other, until the cause strips bare all notions of professional ego. The story also strains with a detail that is near impossible to follow as they trace the chain of corruption, aided and abetted by Hal Holbroook’s growly supergrass Deep Throat, but that just adds to the sense of import. You couldn’t and shouldn’t trivialise this material.
Pakula’s hardnosed verite texture reaches beyond just the mundane gathering of information — a process so deglamorised it feels like drudgery — to the thrilling interplay of the Post’s bustling, factory-like office. Here, such epoch-making events are tellingly poked and prodded by grizzly old editorial salts played by Robert Walden, John McMartin and an Oscar wining Jason Robards. Indeed, his portrayal of executive editor Ben Bradlee gives the film such a powerful injection of humour and pathos it offsets any potential drift into pomposity. And yet, it is also his voice that truly echoes what remains the most significant, vital record for the necessity of the fourth estate: “Nothing's riding on this except the first amendment to the Constitution, freedom of the press, and maybe the future of the country. Not that any of that matters, but if you guys fuck up again, I'm going to get mad.” Pretty much, essential.
As smart and cautionary now as it was in the '70s.