All the President’s Men (1976)

We interrupt the rewatching of movies I’ve seen before with a movie that I had yet to watch.

The movie opens with the Watergate break-in on June 17, 1972, which we all know is the thing that led to President Richard Nixon’s downfall. Nixon is a few months away from being renominated for the 1972 election – an election he would win pretty handily (520-17 EVs) – but the paranoid guy that he was, he wanted to ensure that he won.

But we didn’t know at the time that this break-in, at the DNC headquarters within the hotel, would eventually come back to pointing to people close to the president.

Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) is a relatively new reporter for the Washington Post, and he is assigned to start digging into the burglary to see if there is anything else there. Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) starts digging up his own side of the story, and they are eventually assigned to work the story together.

At first, it seems pretty innocuous, but eventually some of the reporting starts pointing at CREEP, or the Committee to Re-Elect the President (apt name for a Nixon enterprise). There’s an interview with the “bookkeeper,” who indicates that there was a “slush fund” used to pay operatives working for CREEP, and that some pretty high up people at the White House were in charge of it. Former CREEP Treasurer Hugh W. Sloan, Jr., who had testified to a grand jury about some of the stuff happening, seems to indicate that White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman was personally authorizing payments from the CREEP slush fund.

Woodward and Bernstein piece everything together, receiving confirmation from Woodward’s “deep background” source “Deep Throat,” who all but confirms their suspicions that Haldeman was involved. The pair convince Ben Bradlee (Jason Robards) that the story is solid, despite denials from everyone involved. When the article runs the next morning, everyone in the White House denies the story. However, as more information continues to come out, the story continues to build, and it eventually leads to the discovery of the Nixon Oval Office Tapes, which prompts his resignation on August 9, 1974, nearly 18 months after the Haldeman revelation was initially published.

The movie is based on Woodward and Bernstein’s book from the time, though it only covers the period from the break-in to the second inauguration of Nixon on January 20, 1973. In “real life,” Woodward and Bernstein continued to add to their initial story and build out the entire criminal conspiracy directed by Haldeman with Nixon completely knowledgeable about what was happening. Dozens of White House officials were implicated, and many went to jail, and Nixon resigned instead of facing impeachment, which would have likely led to his removal.

The movie seemed apt in our current political environment, except that the modern Republican Party doesn’t seem to want to coalesce around removing an even more dangerous president in Donald Trump. If the current GOP leadership reached the same level of disgust with our current president, they would have removed him after his first impeachment in early 2020, let alone the more recent one after President Trump incited an insurrection at the Capitol earlier this month. Those same Republicans are going to feel awfully silly as the cases are built against the insurrectionists, which thus far have seemed to point a lot of fingers towards the lies the majority of them were spreading about the 2020 election results.

Instead, President Trump gets to limp to the end of his presidency, banned from Twitter and increasingly alone in his delusions, fighting hard to hold onto a job that he doesn’t even pretend to care about. As over 350,000 Americans have died in the past 11 months thanks to his poor management of the coronavirus pandemic, his sole focus since he lost re-election has been to spin up conspiracy theories about how it is impossible that he actually lost the election to President-elect Joe Biden. A majority of Americans will gladly celebrate his departure on January 20th, and (hopefully) we can return to a government that isn’t run by Twitter outburst.

I don’t think we will ever know the full scope of the Trump administration’s crimes, especially as the focus of the Biden administration is to initially focus on getting us past the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic disaster it has wrought. But I hope the modern-day Woodward and Bernsteins at the various media outlets keep digging for the truth long after Trump is gone. It may not end up being enough to prevent the worst from happening, but if we don’t hold (soon-to-be) former President Trump accountable for his crimes and other ethical lapses, the next tyrant will likely be better at it and get away with far worse.

As mentioned, I had never seen this movie before, and I don’t really know why I hadn’t. It could be that my pre-1980 movie watching has been pretty limited. Nevertheless, it was easy to see why this movie is considered so monumental to both movie history and American history, and why it was added to the Library of Congress back in 2010.

As a movie set in 1973, it holds up even today, and if you are into loud typewriters and the lack of cellphones, it’s still pretty easy to watch. The random bits of sexism are a little jarring under a modern eye, but it’s no worse than some of the behaviors shown on contemporary shows like Mad Men.

The movie was nominated for eight Academy Awards, winning four – Best Art Direction, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Sound, and Best Supporting Actor for Jason Robards. It lost Best Picture to Rocky (another movie I haven’t seen), and neither Redford or Hoffman were nominated for their roles. That’s understandable, however, as the things that it did win, especially screenplay, were a better representation of the movie.

After ranking the movie, it ended up at #185 on my FlickChart. It is the 38th movie from the 1970s that I have watched and ranked, and is third among the decade, behind Star Wars and A Clockwork Orange and just ahead of The Godfather. Overall, it settled between Boiler Room (#184) and Batman Begins (#186), which is probably appropriate given my taste in movies.

I would anticipate that we’ll see another similar movie in a few years about the Trump administration, though who knows what stories will be told. However, political movies are often hard to appreciate if they run counter to your personal political alignment, so it will be interesting to see if whatever the “Trump movie” ends up being is one of the best movies of 2024 or whatever. I personally would be perfectly fine with just burying the Trump presidency from our collective memories, but unfortunately, I don’t think that is going to happen.

Until next time…

Saving Private Ryan (1998)

Remember when America hated Nazis? It was a magical time.

In light of the horrible insurrection that occurred this week in Washington, DC, with the outgoing president inciting his fans to attack the Capitol while Congress was meeting the certify the election of his replacement, a review of Saving Private Ryan seems appropriate.

I’ve seen this movie, or at least parts of it, dozens of times. As I’ve grown older and begin to turn more and more into my father, I always try to rewatch it on Memorial Day. Or on D-Day. Or Veterans Day. Or just because. In fact, it was one of the few movies that I actually maintain a physical copy of, if only to make it easier to watch whenever and not at the whim of the various streaming services and how stuff cycles between being available and not.

From the opening scene – after the cemetery part where the old man finds a grave (more on him later) – you are thrown into the action. The camera first finds the shaking hand of Captain Miller (Tom Hanks) as he prepares to lead his group of Rangers to Omaha Beach as part of the Normandy Beach landing on D-Day, June 6, 1944. The gates on the boats drop, and you instantly see why he wanted them to clear the “murder hole.” Chaos erupts, and everyone is pinned to the beach. This has to be one of the best shot sequences in war movie history.

The sea runs red with blood. Captain Miller pauses to amongst the chaos. Dumping the bloody water from his helmet, he comes back to reality with the realization that he needs to get himself and his men off the beach. Removing a machine gun nests, helps, and our valiant heroes open the beach for the rest of the invasion force.

But before then, we see the body of a soldier named Ryan.

Cut to the casualty notification office, where a secretary realizes that the same mother has three letters inbound regarding three of her sons, two killed on D-Day and one in the Pacific. The Ryans. The youngest Ryan brother – the “Private Ryan” in the title – is also participating in the war, as a member of the 101st Airborne that jumped behind Normandy Beach – watch Band of Brothers for that exciting story (though the Ryans are not a real people).

General George C. Marshall (Harve Presnell) decides to send a rescue mission after the fourth Ryan brother, quoting a letter that Abraham Lincoln wrote to a Mrs. Bixby during the Civil War. If he’s alive, they are going to get him home to his mother.

As Captain Miller and his squad search for Private Ryan, they find other elements of the US military all over France, and members of the squad begin to question the efficacy of sending them to search for the proverbial needle in a haystack, especially as members begin to die. Private Caparzo (Vin Diesel) is first, struck down by a sniper when the squad stops and believes they’ve found Private Ryan.

It’s the quiet moments where this movie really shines. The hushed conversations in the church. Walking a night with the lights of battle in the distance. Sorting through dog tags looking trying to confirm if Ryan has been KIA. Patrolling through the French countryside on the way to Ramelle.

T-4 Medic Wade (Giovanni Ribisi) is the next to die, shot while assaulting a machine gun placement found on the way to Ramelle. And when Captain Miller lets a German POW that was responsible for his death walk away, it nearly causes a mutiny. But they persist (after burying the dead), and finally locate Private Ryan (Matt Damon), defending a bridge with a ragtag group of soldiers.

Ryan doesn’t want to leave his unit, so Captain Miller and his crew decide to help defend the bridge from a looming German attack. They prepare the remains of the village for attack, ready to have their last stand at their “Alamo.” Some more quiet moments as the men wait for the inevitable attack.

The Germans attack. Nearly all of the American defenders die, and as Captain Miller stares down a tank with a 9mm handgun, the Army Air Force arrives to save them. Captain Miller is nonetheless gravely wounded, but Private Ryan is safe. As he dies, he whispers in Ryan’s ear, telling him “earn this.” Private Ryan returns home to his mother.

Cut back to that old man at the Normandy cemetery. You thought it was Captain Miller, didn’t you? Turns out its an elderly Private Ryan, telling the good captain that he has indeed earned it.

This movie has always been around my top 10 movies. In two previous times on this blog where I’ve ranked movies, it was there. Heading into this rewatch, it was ranked #12 on my FlickChart, not far from where it always seems to settle. Seems that a couple of movies since that last ranking in 2011 – Lincoln and Hamilton – served to bump it down a bit.

As I’ve been doing so far in this series, I re-ranked it, and it moved up. Honestly, at this point, my top 15 is kind of “tied for second behind Dogma” anyway, so we’re really just splitting hairs. Nevertheless, one of the best war movies ever made has crept back into my top 10, settling at #9 between The Shawshank Redemption and Return of the Jedi.

It’s still fairly unbelievable that Shakespeare in Love won Best Picture at the Oscars instead of this movie. Steven Spielberg was rewarded as Best Director, and it won some technical awards – Best Sound Effects Editing, Best Sound, Best Cinematography, and Best Film Editing – winning a total of five of its 11 nominations.

Tom Hanks could have won Best Actor (he lost to Roberto Benigni in a movie no one has seen), but it was probably a little of Hanks’ fatigue within the Academy after his previous wins for Philadelphia (1994) and Forrest Gump (1995). The only better choice than Benigni was probably Edward Norton in American History X, one of my favorite performances of all time.

The other nominations were for Best Original Screenplay (Shakespeare in Love), Best Original Dramatic Score (Life is Beautiful), Best Art Direction (Shakespeare in Love), and Best Makeup (Elizabeth). I’d argue that the score was probably better, but John Williams has enough awards. Best Makeup should have really been a consideration as well, with solid depictions of war wounds storming the beach and elsewhere.

One of my favorite movies, and if you haven’t seen it, you really should watch it.

Until next time…