Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Time Travel Journalism

I'm burying the lead with that title, because this is actually about the experience of re-watching All The President's Men last week with the perspective of being on the far side of the millennium. If you haven't seen (or seen in a while) the film, it's streaming right now on Amazon Prime and you should check it out.

Most people agree the 70s were a pretty fertile time for American films and I'd make a case that All The President's Men marks a turning point in pop culture, politics, pop journalism, and film. Released in 1976, after Jaws planted the flag on the beachhead of summer blockbuster paradigms in 1975, but before Star Wars swung the entire industry to that model a year later. ATPM grossed $70m and won four Academy Awards, including ones for Best Supporting Actor and Best Writing, Adapted Screenplay.

The 70s, although separated from us temporally by a good four decades, were not as far off as we may like to think. Economic problems, although of a different nature, were common. Inflation, income disparity, an oil crisis. Unrest in the Middle East, as well as tensions with the Soviet Bloc. Racial strife. And, oh my, distrust in the political system, largely cause by the Watergate cover-up, ending with the resignation of a sitting President.

Despite this past year's accolades for Spotlight, it's worth remembering that ATPM was one of the first modern journalist-as-hero movies to grab the popular spotlight. The cover-up motifs that run through each work are highlighted by the unthinkable reality that the perpetrators of the cover-ups were people abusing sacred trusts. As print journalism continues its long painful death spiral, there is something refreshingly innocent about characters righteously pursuing the truth and publishing it. Not some crazy little blog (kinda like this one), but in a national daily, read by millions.

ATPM has a certain tightness of story that you don't see in films currently, which are all bloated beyond repair in service to some vague notion of branding. Goldman's script, based on the book by Woodward and Bernstein - focuses on "the story" as character. The cover-up is a character the reporters are searching to uncover, to really get to know. That is the story of the film and it stays relentlessly focused on that topic.

There is no flab on the film's structure - when the story is done, they're out - credits roll. It's almost shockingly fresh. They get to the point, tell the story cleanly, keep focus, and don't let anything drag. The amount of tension that's built without any real physical confrontation is remarkable. It's old-school, straight-up filmmaking, and well worth a fresh look, even if it's just to secretly giggle when you realize all the reporters' diligent research now can be handled with google and a cell phone.