The blueprint for this and many of our famous conspiracy thrillers is film noir. What this means is that we are thrust in some incomplete part of a narrative and begin from there to look for the forces that move the world. Our main task is to unravel the narrative but always with an eye at exposing the author in control of the thing. In the old days of film noir, the crime was usually modest and stretched not far from us. Most of the time the perpetrator(s) were in the same room.
The JFK assassination changed all that. In the coming years, the public was drawn to suspect a vast, even more abstract network of inscrutable forces that mastered and designed fate. Oh, the murder might have been only the product of a chaotic universe, with no one minding a plan, but people had already imagined a maddening narrative. Watergate delivered the last blow. Here was a conspiracy as sinister as everyone had imagined, perhaps even more inept, and reaching all the way up.
So this should have been an excellent film by all accounts. Alan Pakula was brought in to direct, who had earlier exhibited a methodic grasp for how internal narrative can dislocate view. How a conspiracy can happen as we thought it would because we looked hard enough, with us as co-conspirators in the fabrication. And the story has potential, as stretching to encompass the narrative of an entire nation.
So why this sketchy, half-hearted, inconsequential, ill-informed procedural? Let’s forget no dramatic tension whatsoever and no palpable sense of eyes burning holes in our backs. Why the simplified battle of good reporter against evil bureaucracy? Why just one shade throughout and one way to read? Why the lackluster visual imagination? And given Parallax, why not assign to us the role of reporter, thus deeper involving us in the anonymous re-construction of truth?
Many viewers blame Redford. No doubt he wanted a noble image to portray, a noble struggle towards common good to embody. Hoffman is completely lost running errands here. But regardless of the more pragmatic motives which moved Woodward and Bernstein in pursuit of truth, I think we can all agree it really was a struggle to unmask evil as thought to be at the time.
No, why it doesn’t work at all so many years later but was heralded then as one of the great films of the year, I believe has all to do with when it was made. A more complex film could be made from the facts. But not at the time. People were elated this battle had been won, and wanted the souvenir for posterity’s sake. It was enough that events were relived, the thrills were still fresh in mind.
Our saddest loss is not this film but Alan Pakula. He never recuperated from being recognized for the first time as a filmmaker here - and not Parallax or the evocative Klute. Every time his career would wane from that point onwards, he would reach for the simplified bag of tricks we find here.