by John Carlos Cantú
Say what you will about the Ronald Reagan administration, but there can be little said about the hijinks of this President's staff that can compare with the Nixon legacy. Indeed, in a perverse sort of way, the very fact that Ollie North and the rest of Reagan's cadre should even compete with John Mitchell's gang for incompetence only reinforces Karl Marx's observation that history repeats itself only as farce.
It is for this reason that a subtle aspect of Alan J. Pakula's "All the President's Men" is rarely acknowledged. This is the fact that the film is a peculiar sort of black comedy. And although the script is certainly not played for laughs, there is a nonetheless a remarkable surreal tongue-in-cheek inevitability surrounding the dialogue that is something akin to gallow's humor.
When the film is studied from the perspective of a staff of highly talented (and equally ambitious) journalists attempting to pull every trick out of their bag to combat a President that has abandoned the rule book altogether, the result is a race of absurd proportions in which such values as honesty, respect and compassion are left far behind in a titanic struggle for the soul of the world's oldest constitutional republic.
But this reading only enhances the view that someone is fighting for what one might call "right". Sorry, but it just isn't there. The journalists, granting they are fighting from a different set of standards, are not beyond a little joyful hitting below the belt themselves. So what we receive in this tidy and highly entertaining civic lesson is a reminder that history is recorded by the victors, and in this instance, it was the heavyweight who was outclassed in his own division.
Robert Redford, Dustin Hoffman, Jack Warden, Jason Robards (who won an Academy Aware for his performance as the editor of the Washington Post), Hal Holbrook and Martin Balsam all provide competent characterizations of the newsmen they portray. You can take it for granted that the Nixon administration portrays itself vividly - to Pakula's credit, a little bit too vividly.
But the real story of this film is not the technical values. The real story is, rather, the story is: How a President of the United State hypocritically remonstrates to the public about actions which take place from within his administration and staff. How the President is willing to abandon any sense of justice to achieve his ambitions, regardless of the constitutional damage his wishes present to the American political structure. And how this President, in asking the American people to accept his word as his bond, is willing to risk all through the single most dangerous disease of democracy: mistrust in government officials.
Enjoy this remarkable film of politics and journalism for what it is, but do not confuse it for totally fair deliberation between good and evil. It merely attempts to repeat the record, and that record is that there were no good guys...only players willing to go to the wall for their side of the battle.
In this world of post-Vietnam, post-Watergate and post-Iran scam cynicism, it is so obviously apparent that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
"All the President's Men" will show on Tuesday, Oct. 27 at 7pm and 9:30pm in the Lurch Hall at the University of Michigan.