All the President’s Men

All the President’s Men. Wildwood Enterprises 1976.

Before watching the movie:

I’ve always felt that the Watergate wiretapping investigation was the single moment that America lost popular faith in its government. Perhaps that’s a naive view of history before it. Certainly the Vietnam War was a black eye for the nation. And I know there were other scandals gaining headlines between the Civil War and the Great Depression. Not long ago I covered a movie about political corruption from the 30s.

I will certainly grant that corruption has been around as long as there has been power to abuse. But if I had to point to one reason why pretty much anyone will tell you they’re all crooks in Washington, I’d say it was the CREEP coverup revelation. That was, in my mind, when the spin broke down and we saw the President’s New Clothes. The day a sitting president resigned in disgrace to avoid impeachment was the day we stopped believing that as a whole, our leaders had our best interests at heart. At least, that’s the narrative I’ve developed as someone who was born almost two decades later, having lived in a world where no substantiated political scandal has yet compared.

After watching the movie:

When the Washington Post’s newsroom signs young reporter Bob Woodward to cover a burglary at the Watergate hotel, it’s a simple police story. But as he covers the legal proceedings, he finds that they were assigned counsel but turned out to have private counsel they couldn’t have had a chance to hire themselves. Following that mystery leads to uncovering a meeting with a someone who works for the Special Advisor to the President. As the story grows, younger Carl Bernstein joins with Woodward to help pursue and report the case. Everything about it indicates deep corruption, but no source will go on record, and hardly anyone will give any information at all. There are plenty of hints that this is something big, but hints and hearsay don’t make concrete journalism, and the harder they push, the higher the pushback comes from.

This doesn’t play much like a movie. It’s more a methodical presentation of events. It seems almost as clinical as the case studies Sherlock Holmes would prefer Watson write. Despite dealing with the very heart of what makes our free society work, there’s next to no emotional investment asked for by the narrative. The duo fight through cold trails to get their facts, but we don’t get any kind of personal level of narrative conflict, just the professional challenge. This is almost excusable by the fact that we as the audience know how things turned out.

The end seems very abrupt. I’d consider the story beat it concludes on to be the beginning of the third act. After a major reversal, they get back on their feet and roll up their sleeves… and then it’s over, and all their vindication comes from an epilogue told in headlines. Perhaps this decision came from realizing the movie was already reaching two and a half hours in length.

Perhaps due to the limitation of scope of the story told, there doesn’t seem to be time in those two and a half hours to really explore the gravity of just how big the conspiracy was. It’s a gut punch to learn how much of the government was in on the election interference, but then everything wraps up with all the mess of that handled off camera.  This further leaves the impression that nothing really matters in this movie about uncovering very important things.

Ultimately, this story isn’t as concerned with the erosion of democracy as it is with journalistic integrity. Journalists will say that journalistic integrity is key to democracy, but in this case, the report could only be made after the damage had been done. The scheme worked, all the papers could do was refuse to let it stick. And by the narrative shown here, even that was a long shot.

 

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The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

The Manchurian Candidate. United Artists 1962.

Before watching the movie:

I think I’ve heard once or twice that Frank Sinatra stars in this, but I forgot it. It’s still strange to think about him as a legendary actor as well as a legendary singer.

There was a remake in 2004, which was probably the wrong time for a remake. I wonder if anyone with say-so is considering making it again. Some would argue it’s being remade right in front of us.

Continue reading

Judgment at Nuremberg

Judgment at Nuremberg. Metro Goldwyn-Meyer 1961.

Before watching the movie:

I don’t really get why trying Nazi war crimes can fill a whole three hour courtroom drama, but the reason I don’t is probably why it needs that much time.

This film is indirectly responsible for my initial awareness of Spencer Tracy. In order to talk William Shatner into allowing himself to age publicly, Tracy was used as an example, and turned out to have been one of Shatner’s personal icons, having worked with him on this very movie. As much as I like Star Trek, I find Tracy’s performances very likeable for an entirely different reason from why Shatner is fun. Continue reading

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Columbia Pictures 1939.

Before watching the movie:

So, the underdog political fable. The everyday guy who comes to Congress and fixes corruption with dogged determination and fillibustering. What’s sad is that it seemed plausible then, but not anymore, and the fillibuster it hinges on is now a tool of the kind of problems this movie wants to fix.

That’s the reputation, anyway. The changed political landscape is why I’m not sure I’ll get out of this movie what was intended. Continue reading

Young Mr. Lincoln

Young Mr. Lincoln. Twentieth Century Fox 1939.
Young Mr. Lincoln. Twentieth Century Fox 1939.

Before watching the movie:

Okay, here’s one I’m completely unfamiliar with. It just came up in algorithmic suggestions, and I’m not really sure what to make of it. It occurs to me that in 1939, there were probably still people alive who had seen the Civil War, perhaps even usefully remember it.

I would not be surprised if this is a mostly fictional story suggested by Lincoln’s career as a lawyer. It looks on the surface more like a piece to venerate him than to explore a historical event worth exploring, but it’s going to be interesting to see how the late 30s remember one of our most notable presidents.

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The Poseidon Adventure (1972)

The Poseidon Adventure. Kent Productions 1972.
The Poseidon Adventure. Kent Productions 1972.

Before watching the movie:

I definitely selected this movie because it takes place on New Year’s and not because escaping an upside-down sinking ship with a high fatality rate seemed like an appropriate metaphor for anything.

So, this should be a pretty grounded disaster/survival movie. Trying to navigate rooms on their ceilings, filling with water, should be an interesting challenge to see passengers try to overcome. Continue reading

Movies of my Yesterdays: One Magic Christmas

moviesyesterdaysI’m not sure what year it was, but I know when it happened. My first grown up Christmas. The year of revised expectations. I think it was when I was in high school. All through the final build up to the day, something was wrong. Something was missing. Something wasn’t Christmas about that Christmas. I couldn’t put a finger on it, it just wasn’t working. Into that malaise, none of my gifts that year were anything that was particularly able to excite me. Maybe I was just burned out.

I was told that there was another present meant for me. A very major present. But it had vanished. It had even vanished from memory, for I could not be told was it was. I understood. I couldn’t blame anyone. It was just one more way that holiday wasn’t working out the way I’d come to expect. In my state of mind that year, it probably wouldn’t have saved Christmas for me anyway. However, in its absence, the most significant gift I received was a movie.

One Magic Christmas. Walt Disney Pictures 1985.
One Magic Christmas. Walt Disney Pictures 1985.

It was a Christmas movie, which was already a strike against it. As someone who likes to keep things compartmentalized, being a Christmas movie meant that it was going to be out of season the next day. I respected that that view may not be widely held, and tried to look past it. It stars Mary Steenburgen, whom I’d liked in Back to the Future 3. If I recall correctly, it has Wayne Robson in a major role, and I like him on The Red Green Show. The familiar cast should have helped me like it.

However, its plot was something like a modern take on It’s A Wonderful Life, with a whole heap of problems building to a crisis, followed by a magical second chance. It ended up being more depressing than enjoyable. But I wasn’t really enjoying anything that year. I still have no idea why, but there was no magic in my Christmas, and One Magic Christmas didn’t provide any.

With the movie fresh in my mind now, I think the two main parts of the problem were that it’s a much more pure drama than anything I would have ever expected, and I wasn’t in a frame of mind to be receptive to what it actually does. Ginny’s life is already miserable, and in order to find the Christmas Spirit, she has to reach a much lower point than that, so that she essentially has nothing left but faith in Christmas magic. It’s like if It’s A Wonderful Life spent two thirds of its runtime on the day Uncle Billy lost the money. The moments of relief from the depression are subtle, and not something I was originally able to notice, let alone appreciate. The payoff of the unrelenting hardship is the catharsis of how her experience has changed her, and maybe it is arbitrary, and the magic involved confusing, but now it feels good anyway. Over ten years later, when if anything I’m more of a pragmatic adult like Ginny, I can let the movie’s magic in.