[1976] All The President’s Men

There’s a film (not nominated for Best Picture, probably incorrectly) called The Thin Blue Line, which doesn’t really distinguish between narrative fiction and fictional narrative, but asks the audience to follow incredibly closely and decide for themselves what happened. Errol Morris took this film in a brilliant direction as each person watching the movie (documentary?) was asked to examine their own biases for the name of fairness, correctness, and real life tragedy. His work is an important distinction and groundbreaking in that before The Thin Blue Line, film was very obviously either true or false; a director took license only where absolutely necessary. A few hypotheses why this was the case, in order from probably the truth to certainly not the truth:

  • Technical limitations set the parameters for what could be staged, shot, edited, and pressed. Until the advent of more advanced cameras and computers and software to handle the ambition, storytellers limited their ideas to plausible narratives and the naturally insane.
  • Film was expensive, and filming too much more in the wayward sense of exposition and exploration, would have driven budgets beyond what a financier would consider “acceptable” overruns.
  • Inventing a whole new type of storytelling takes a bold visionary, and they had not yet come along.
  • Audiences cared much more and were entirely more naive about what was truth and what was not. Critical narratives were not readily accessible and without them audiences could not fathom a distinction between manipulative intent and honesty.
  • There was no incentive or market to bust up inertia and jump-start creativity [Ed. – This might be true in the 2010s, somewhat]

This last point is not true, though film in the mid-to late 1980s had lost some of the ferocity brought forth starting in the late 1960s and The Thin Blue Line had started to shake up some of the storytelling techniques that would carry forward, especially into Oliver Stone’s JFK in 1990 and lots of neo-noir works like LA Confidential in 1997 and Mystic River in 2003. There was a cascading acceptance of newness toward the late 1980s.

Strange, then, in 1976, there exists All The President’s Men, based on a true story – chronicled in real-time by the story’s protagonists – but dramatized by William Goldman (not involved) and directed by Alan Pakula (not involved). The story, we believe, is positively and observably true; this version is different from a news broadcast or narrated anthology, but its release just four years after the well-documented events is dramatized for public consumption. All The President’s Men fills in the gaps between the facts with a tight narrative – days are highlighted and spotted throughout many months, Jason Robards approximates burly Ben Bradlee ostensibly accurately, and the character known as “Deep Throat” is still mysterious. All The Preident’s Men in hindsight is probably the fulcrum separating stories made for an audience and films made and mythologized by an audience.

It’s worth noting that the only fact not explored in All The President’s Men is the identity of Deep Throat – only revealed 33 years later when Mark Felt, nearly death, confirmed his alias. Of the truth – the Truth – this “fact” stands out as narrative but ultimately unimportant. All The President’s Men is supposed to play like a three act play rather than a documentary and it won’t be for another 13 years before its main actors have faded from daily news that The Thin Blue Line asks its audience to explore the relationship between what is being told and what happened. What’s needed is time away from an event and for the human memory to substitute for observation with observed heuristics. Then, facts become as long as long arcs can get and can be contextualized differently. Because of how fast information moves today, how fast reporters can canonize a story, and push it out for public consumption and criticism. To this, we add a sixth bullet to the top of the list:

  • The excruciating slowness of truth drove the need for original content.

This is perhaps an answer to the question: why wasn’t there a similarly-styled movie about McCarthy released in 1957? But it is also an answer to the question: did the Internet stifle creativity?

Rocky won Best Picture in 1976, setting precedent for future wins outside of war and strife. There is a too-far-reaching narrative that the underdog spirit was meant to represent some sort of come-from-behind victory in Vietnam, but really it is a tremendous effort acting and writing and real people. Sylvester Stallone defined himself as an actor playing himself and Rocky‘s arc still touches people, resulting in a multiple reboots for Gen Y. Boxing is the ultimate test of the human capacity to fight; it’s natural and necessary to make narrative about it, set it to cellulose, and let it loose. It is a deserved winner. Rocky‘s win is laudable for other reasons, too, seeing that it not only defeated All The President’s Men, but also NetworkTaxi Driver, and Bound for Glory. The only other film with a chance to win in 1976 was Taxi Driver, but its nihilism probably drove Academy voters away, despite its message being tremendously wide-eyed, even 43 years later. The other three films were probably caught in an Academy love triangle. The political climate in 2019 puts All The President’s Men strikingly back together again.

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