Richard Nixon Sat On a Wall…

In lieu of the politics of late…

Somewhere in the back of my mind there is a room full of nothing but all of the very best political movies that my resilient retinas have allowed entry. Amongst such wonderful films as Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Costa-Gravas’ Z (1969), Andrzej Wajda’s Man of Iron (1981), etc. there sits one movie on a shabby desk with crumpled papers and notepads littering an otherwise visible typewriter. This movie is Alan J. Pakula’s classic All the President’s Men (1976) starring Robert Redford (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) and Dustin Hoffman (The Graduate) as the now legendary journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein who uncovered the Watergate Scandal that ousted Nixon from his presidential office.

When nobody seems to be questioning a possible link between five Cubans breaking into the Democratic National Committee in the Watergate building and an ever-expanding list of politicos who are remaining decidedly tacit about the whole ordeal, Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) starts pestering his boss, Ben Bradlee (Jason Robards, Once Upon a Time in the West), at the Washington Post to let him write more on the subject. Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) is assigned the project alongside the newer Woodward. No other papers seem interested in Watergate and more than half the country never heard of Watergate, but Woodward and Bernstein are determined to find the truth and discover why people keep changing their stories. What is everybody hiding? Through the anonymous source “Deep Throat” a.k.a. W. Mark Felt (Hal Holbrook), Woodward is encouraged that he is on the right track, but confounded by how ambiguous and elusive his source is . . . Ben Bradlee proves even more confounded by their lack of solid evidence. With bigger and bigger names being pulled from the investigative hat with no nameable source, and Bradlee’s neck on the line, it boils down to an all or nothing stance for the Washington Post to take…and they risk it all. If the Committee to Reelect President Nixon was involved with the Watergate burglary (and they deny it vehemently) then the Washington Post will be in a lot of trouble, but if Woodward and Bernstein are correct then it will be quite a story.

That’s the basics of what happens in the movie and the book it was based on (written by Woodward and Bernstein), but the real important thing to take away from this fantastic film is the power of the press and investigative reporting. This movie champions journalists and real journalism like no other, specifically American journalism. Watching this film it is hard not to realize how blessed we are that we live in a nation where this story could have happened. John Peter Zenger would be proud. Regardless of how our leaders may attempt to conceal the truth, let us never forget that we live in a nation where the truth can be uncovered as long as the drive to expose it exists. This brings me to another inspiring aspect of the film: Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein themselves! They dug. They didn’t have to. They risked a lot (before either of them had reputations), not because they were asked to (Bradlee wanted them to stop in the beginning), but because the truth was somewhere to be found. Was it so the American people would know? Was it to bother the government? Was it for the story? Was it for their own pride? Was it because the authoritative power of the truth was inherently driving them? Maybe it was just so people could be reminded that they could find the truth, even if nobody cared.

Freedom of the press and free speech is not merely a right as an American. It is an obligation. A questioning and discerning public should keep its government from misstepping too drastically.

Where Oliver Stone’s JFK (1991) desperately charges that the American people must know the truth at all costs (and does a good job of it), All the President’s Men never feels like it’s pushing any sort of agenda. Questions must be asked and answered because it is the natural way of humankind. It is how the youngest child learns and why should it be any different for the rest of us? All the President’s Men is one of the finest examples of investigative reporting caught on film and should inspire the reporters of today. Virtually the whole movie is Woodward and Bernstein asking questions and probing reluctant people through phone calls—practically half the movie is shots of people talking on the phone—and doorstep visitations and parking garage rendezvous.

In addition to the themes, the very craft of the film is great. The cast is perfect and the direction, writing, editing, cinematography, etc. are all top notch as well. There’s a reason it was nominated for so many awards (including Best Picture). All the President’s Men, in addition to being one of the greatest American movies, is one of the most American movies and it says and does things that can’t be said or done too often.

I was just thinking, this might make an interesting (if a bit strange) double-feature with Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998). That way you’d get two different extremes of American journalism. Just imagine if Woodward and Bernstein had teamed up with Hunter S. Thompson! No. That’s way too far.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” Jan. 13, 2010

The Movies You Did Nazi

So you’ve probably seen some of these but for the sake of the Nazi/not-see pun I ran with the title.

Nazis make great villains. They’re easy to spot, easy to pinpoint in history, and easy to hate. From Raiders of the Lost Ark to Shock Waves (Peter Cushing plays a Nazi zombie in that one), it’s always been easy to hate these guys. Nobody’s going to forget Christolph Waltz’s performance in Inglourious Basterds anytime soon. In eager anticipation of the new movie Iron Sky (2012)—where Nazis on a secret moon-base prepare to attack earth in space zeppelins (Gingrich, you fool!!!)—I am reminded of other some Nazis that made it to a ripe old age to be bad guys for a younger generation.

Marathon Man (1976), directed by John Schlesinger (Midnight Cowboy), is a pretty famous one, but I am surprised by the number of people who still haven’t seen it. It’s back when Dustin Hoffman was the hottest ticket in town, but the real reason to watch the film is the menace of the evil Nazi, Dr. Szell, played by the illustrious Laurence Olivier (Sleuth, Rebecca, Spartacus). I won’t waste time with the intricacies of the wonderfully thrilling plot, but the several scenes that make this movie famous should be good enough for anybody. An incognito Dr. Szell being recognized by Jewish Holocaust survivors in New York City as he tries to get his precious diamonds appraised is a fantastic bit of cinematic suspense. This scene was also spoofed in an episode of Seinfeld. Then there’s the infamous dentist sequence in which Olivier tortures Hoffman with dental equipment. He’s a Nazi AND a dentist? Can this guy get more evil? Oh, he just murdered those innocent bystanders.

“Is it safe?”

Laurence Olivier appeared in another 70s Nazi movie, only this time as an old Jewish man trying to solve a mystery in The Boys From Brazil (1978). Franklin J. Schaffner (Planet of the Apes, Patton) directs this sort of loopy conspiracy theory plot about geriatric Nazis stuck in South America (much like Szell). The Nazis are played by James Mason (Lolita, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea) and Gregory Peck (Captain Horatio Hornblower, The Guns of Navarone). That’s right. Peck. Gregory Peck plays a Nazi. Not only that but he’s supposed to be Dr. Josef Mengele! Atticus Finch is Mengele in this movie!

I say this movie is a little loopy because it centers around Peck and Mason making dozens of clones of Adolf Hitler and planting them all around the world, strategically re-staging all the original Hitler’s boyhood traumas (nature vs. nurture schtick). The idea of old men living in the jungle hatching a convoluted plot to make an army of Hitlers is, well, just kinda nuts. As far as conspiracy theory flicks go, Capricorn 1 was probably better, but I like The Boys from Brazil more just because it’s so weird. Detective Yiddish Olivier is also a fun plot element. As a Holocaust survivor he’s got to settle the score. He has a personal stake in all of this. It’s a fun, hokey movie with science gone wild and some dog attacks. Steve Guttenberg (Police Academy) is also in it, but he gets killed off pretty quick.

Stanley Kramer (Inherit the WindHigh Noon) has produced and directed many films about race relations and important political issues and while Pressure Point (1962) might not stack up so well next to The Defiant Ones or Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, it’s a decent flick all the same. The main feature was directed by Hubert Cornfield. The great Sidney Poitier (SneakersIn the Heat of the Night) plays an unflinching psychiatrist who must get to the bottom of why a racist American Nazi (played by Bobby Darin) keeps having nightmares. The film is a little awkward—I chiefly blame the bookend cliche of the “That reminds me of the time when…” conceit, but the movie as a whole is not a total waste of time. Poitier and Darin are both very good and there are some truly surreal sequences that try to delve into the psyche of the patient. Grown men trying to climb out of sinks, voices emerging out of the wrong mouths, swinging meat, pipes that turn into knives, and a game of tic-tac-to that gets more than a little out of hand are all some of the fascinating images you will take away from this otherwise fairly forgettable movie. The cinematography is pretty solid all around.

Peter Falk (Murder by Death, Wings of Desire) also has a brief appearance and is credited as being a ‘special guest star.’ I never understood having ‘special guest star’ for a movie. Like they don’t normally star in this movie but here they are. Pressure Point is a little stagey, but well acted and some memorably weird sequences. It reminded me vaguely of The Manchurian Candidate (1962).

Really quick shout out to John Landis’s The Blues Brothers (1980). Let’s face it, this movie is an overlong and gloriously bombastic tribute to great blues musicians and wild car chases. Dan Aykroyd (Ghostbusters) and John Belushi (Animal House) and a host of awesome comedy and blues cameos make this John Landis (An American Werewolf in London) flick a classic, but don’t forget Henry Gibson (Magnolia) as an uptight neo-Nazi out for revenge against the Blues Brothers for wrecking their Skokie-like protest (all before Danny Kaye did Skokie for TV too). The cops, hillbillies, crazed flame-torch wielding exes, the army, and everybody else was chasing the Blues Brothers, why not Nazis too? I especially love their homosexual confession as they plummet to their deaths.

The Man in the Iron Mask with Leonardo DiCaprio. The Man in the White Suit with Alec Guinness. The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit with Gregory Peck. The Man in the Moon with Jim Carrey. How about The Man in the Glass Booth with Maximilian Schell? Schell (The Black Hole, Topkapi) was the defense attorney in Stanley Kramer’s Judgement at Nuremberg (1961), but it is his captivating and manic performance as Arthur Goldman in Arthur Hiller’s The Man in the Glass Booth (1975) that really caught my attention. I can only say Hiller (The Out of Towners, Silver Streak) directed it because it is Schell’s performance that makes it. This is such a bizarre and interesting film. Maximilian Schell plays a wealthy eccentric Holocaust survivor living in luxury in New York City. Prone to both irreverent outbursts critical of religion and flashback spells that make him temporarily catatonic, Arthur Goldman is a strange persona indeed, but he just gets stranger. When a group of Israelis kidnap him with the intent of putting him on trial for war crimes (they believe Goldman to be a falsified alias), Goldman goes totally berserk, but not in the way you might expect. He completely shifts personas and becomes the Nazi war criminal he is accused of being. He insists on defending himself and that he be allowed to wear his Nazi uniform. The idiosyncratic Jewish New Yorker and Holocaust survivor metamorphosizes, without batting an eye, into a barking Nazi lunatic with total devotion to the extinct Cause. During the wild trial Goldman must be kept in a glass booth to keep his offensive testimonies and unhinged craziness in check. When it appears that much of the evidence against Goldman is forged (and by Goldman himself) the Jewish court has to re-evaluate everything. The audience is confused too. Who has he been fooling and why? We knew Goldman was nuts but which persona was his fake one? It’s not as clear as we once thought. This is a fascinating and bizarre film that really resonated with me. It’s been weeks and I still can’t shake it. Is it the story of post-war trauma or Jewish guilt? Is it Schell’s insane Oscar-nominated performance? Is it the chilling final minutes? I don’t know, but I can say that despite the film’s cinematic shortcomings I would recommend it.

Interestingly, The Man in the Glass Booth was also based on a novel written by the great Robert Shaw (Jaws, The Sting) who also played a Nazi himself in Battle of the Bulge (1965) opposite Henry Fonda (12 Angry Men).

Nearly 70 years after the war and Nazis are still iconic screen villains. Sometimes serious (Schindler’s List), sometimes silly (Dead Snow), but always recognizable. If you are looking for some truly different films about Nazis check out some of the titles I’ve mentioned in this article. Some of these should be fairly easy to come by because they’re so famous (Marathon Man, The Blues Brothers), but I would encourage you to check out the others as they offer something much more offbeat than your typical fair.