Friday, June 24, 2016

Garage Freak: All the President's Men at 40

Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford in All the President’s Men (1976).

Just recently, my wife and I took a road trip through Virginia, and on our itinerary was an outwardly unremarkable building in Arlington. Meaning to complete a kind of circle begun 15 years ago – when a friend who’d attended college in Washington D.C. took me over to the Foggy Bottom neighborhood to see the Watergate complex – I wanted to visit a parking garage at 1401 Wilson Boulevard. It was here, in 1972 and 1973, that Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward met the anonymous source who a Post editor called “Deep Throat,” after the Linda Lovelace porn movie then in circulation.

In a nutshell: On June 17, 1972, five burglars broke into the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate. From that starting point, over the next year, Woodward and his partner, Carl Bernstein, assembled leads from hundreds of sources into an escalating, expanding narrative of corruption centered on the dark heart of Richard Nixon’s White House. “Woodstein” and the Post were not alone in doing heroic Watergate work, but they were the ones who kept the story going when everyone else assumed it was nothing but (in the words of Nixon press secretary Ron Ziegler) “a third-rate burglary”; it was their tenacity that effected the slow public unraveling of Nixon’s black-souled presidency.

This parking garage was where much of the information was imparted, the questions asked, the leads proffered. It was also where they filmed the corresponding scenes in All the President’s Men, the Alan J. Pakula docudrama that was adapted from Woodward and Bernstein’s bestselling account – a movie which, released amid the US Bicentennial celebrations of 1976, happens to be turning 40 this year. Rounding the corner of Wilson onto Nash Street, we read the commemorative plaque outside the building. We walked through the drive-in entrance, found the stairs, and followed them to the bottom level – where the stairwell, spookily enough, was in absolute and sudden darkness. We entered the huge open lot, and followed the numbered pillars to the spot where the meetings took place: D-32. A Xeroxed magazine story was taped to the pillar, identifying its place in history.

Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward. (Associated Press file photo)

There was no one else around, and no sounds but the low throb of the building, the steady drip of a water pipe. It was eerie, humbling: without realizing it, you stopped breathing. You touched the concrete, stepped lightly in the quiet, peered down the expanse of empty space where overhead lights and ranked pipes and unmarked doors disappeared into a dark nothing. You felt yourself as something quite small, yet quite alive – alive within this humming locus of history.

Of course, one of the first things I did when we got home was watch All the President’s Men for the thousandth time. I anticipated the Deep Throat scenes, Woodward and his “garage freak” meeting in breathless secrecy in the wee hours; Robert Redford and Hal Holbrook exchanging looks and whispers, enwreathed in each other’s paranoia, the actors palpably caught up in the still-fresh fear of a factual conspiracy so shocking, and so recently exposed. I studied the angles, the shadows behind the actors, and could see or at least sense the same pillars, the same walls, the same dim, squalid corners where we’d stood days before, trying to feel the ghosts these actors were trying to feel.

All the President’s Men is such a great American movie. “Great” because it is great; “American” because it so exemplifies what Hollywood always did right, and what in the 1970s it often did better than it ever had before: the streamlining of taut screenplays and no-nonsense acting, good stories and inspired technique into absorbing narratives of depth and relevance. I have always known it was a great movie. What I was not prepared to discover – since I’ve never seen it in a theater, and was only now seeing it in widescreen format on a large-screen TV – was the brilliance of Pakula’s direction, which I had always regarded as merely a superior manifestation of anonymous style.

Alan J. Pakula and Robert Redford on the set of All the President’s Men

As the last panel in Pakula’s unofficial “paranoia” triptych, the picture draws in obvious ways from its predecessors: from Klute (1971), the sensuality of darkness, and the trade-off between conspiratorial silence and urban noise; from The Parallax View (1974), the geometry of fear, the modernistic placement of small, distant bodies against overarching lines and shapes, architecture that appears both bureaucratic and monstrous (the essence of paranoia in post-war America). But All the President’s Men – which seems to have come along partly to vindicate the earlier films, to assert that their paranoia wasn’t paranoia at all, only accurate perception – is even richer with these geometries, these landscapes of concrete, steel, and glass. Watergate security guard Frank Wills, in long shot, descends a ramp to discover the burglars’ point of entry; Woodward, spooked in the silent morning, slowly crosses an empty parking lot; Woodward and Bernstein riffle check-out slips as the camera retracts to a vertiginous height over the rotunda of the Library of Congress.

All the President’s Men is imagined deeply and inhabited fully, on different levels and in multiple dimensions. One of its best scenes is a six-minute slow zoom on Redford. Woodward is on the phone, trying first to reach, then to pry information from, a Nixon finance chairman whose reelection take was funneled to the Watergate burglars. Woodward wheedles, rubs his forehead, bites his lip, nearly pleads – all to reach the next stage of a story which perhaps a dozen people know or care about. Meanwhile, in the background, the National editor and his reporters gather around a television set: Democratic candidate George McGovern is making a statement about his running mate, Missouri Senator Thomas Eagleton, whose record of shock treatments for depression has just been leaked to the press. For minutes, Woodward coaxes his phone source in the foreground as the lens creeps slowly in and the National team hangs on the TV. When McGovern announces he is dropping Eagleton, the National editor shouts, “That’s it – he’s done!” and his people disperse in a flurry of voices and bodies. Maniacally focused throughout, Woodward stays on his source – and gets the information.

There’s no more exciting a scene in any American movie of the Seventies – exciting not only for its immediate effect, but also for its dimensionality, which is so subtle that it might, as in my case, escape notice for decades. Early on, William Goldman’s screenplay has insinuated a simmering rivalry between the Post’s Metro and National desks, with National feeling the Watergate story is a dead end and waste of resources. In the telephone scene, National is following the “big” story, the story of obvious if passing importance, as Woodward works in isolation to nurture the “little” story that will become, finally, one of the biggest stories in American history. (The crowning irony is that Eagleton’s demise turned out to have been among the Nixon White House “dirty tricks” of which Watergate was the harbinger.) The slow-zoom phone scene is gorgeously mirrored at the film’s end, when Woodward and Bernstein, still isolated, still working their “little” story, type furiously at their desks as the newsroom gathers around TV sets showing, in foreground and background, Nixon’s second inauguration, complete with synchronized rifle fire. Again, the dimensionality: in Pakula’s frame, so deftly strategized, so convincingly populated by actors who breathe naturalism down to the remotest figure, there is irony, drama, action, and finally an almost overwhelming sense of life.

Dimensionality: Woodward (Robert Redford) and the National desk, “little” story and “big” story.

I lack the stomach or the desire to read All the President’s Men in light of what is currently unfolding in American politics – a conspiracy of lies and subversion that is no conspiracy at all because it is happening in broad daylight, naked of any pretense to honor. It’s melancholy enough to linger on everything about the film that is now gone from our world, though it still makes the movie rattle and hum – from the opening explosion of typewriter on paper (prefiguring those inaugural rifles) to the clattering dance of the teletype ball as it spells out the aftermath of Watergate, all the resultant confessions and convictions. The movie is, as well as a vital, breathing thing, a time capsule: witness the corded phones and absence of computers, the labor of simple communication and the ordeal of data retrieval. Witness the newspaper business itself: there will come a day, if it’s not already here, when All the President’s Men will be as antique a portrait of the journalistic trade as The Front Page.

In 2005, three years before his death, former FBI second-in-command Mark Felt went public with the revelation that he was Deep Throat. Thus was explained, or dashed, one of the twentieth century’s great public mysteries – one which Woodward, Bernstein, and a handful of others had vowed to take to their own graves if it came to that. (See Woodward’s The Secret Man: The Story of Watergate’s Deep Throat for the “now it can be told” back- and after-story.) As for the spot Felt had once designated for his 2 a.m. meetings with Woodward – I’ll always be glad we went out of our way to see the Deep Throat garage. It was announced in 2014 that the lot had been purchased by a developer who would raze the garage, while deigning to leave the commemorative marker. As of now, though, the garage is still there – massive, silent, haunted. Whether we know it or not, we’ll lose something when it goes.

– Devin McKinney is the author of Magic Circles: The Beatles in Dream and History (2003), The Man Who Saw a Ghost: The Life and Work of Henry Fonda (2012), and Jesusmania! The Bootleg Superstar of Gettysburg College (2016). Formerly a music columnist (The American Prospect), blogger (Hey Dullblog), and TV writer (The Food Network), he has appeared in numerous publications and contributes regularly to Critics at Large and the pop culture site HiLobrow. He is employed as an archivist at Gettysburg College in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where he lives with his wife and their three cats. His website is

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