The Sound of Washington

All the President's MenStill sick, I slept through most of today uncomfortably. By the mid-afternoon, I finally felt well enough to get up and cook myself some soup and park myself in front of the television for a while. As it happened, Encore was running Alan J. Pakula’s 1976 film adaptation of “All the President’s Men.” I’ve watched this film about half a dozen times since I was kid, and each time I come away convinced that it’s one of the greatest movies I’ll ever watch.

Talking over Airplanes

There’s so much that’s good about “All the President’s Men,” not the least of which is how it manages to turn an arcane, highly detailed sequence of events into some of the most thrilling 138 minutes you could hope to see on film. It’s a thoroughly bracing, frightening movie, expertly acted and expertly directed, and it also happens to be one of the most narratively complex film gambles in history. This time, though, what I really found myself paying attention to was its phenomenal sound design.

There is one scene early on in “All the President’s Men” wherein Dustin Hoffman, as Carl Bernstein, is having lunch with a source at a restaurant on a roof deck in downtown D.C. As they talk, the cacophonous disturbance of an airplane leaving National Airport can be heard overhead, and Pakula actually has the actors raise their voices to speak over the din. It’s subtle but disconcerting, and while the movie has been criticized for economizing the true facts of the investigation, details like this heighten the portent and suspense by heightening the sense of realism. Pakula went through great lengths to make every detail contribute to a feeling of the real Washington, replete with its labyrinthine relations and cutthroat politics. The result was a soundtrack unlike any other.

Less Music Is More Realism

In an enterprise that hinged its success on injecting a sense of high suspense into, basically, countless scenes of men sitting at their typewriters, Pakula bravely eschewed almost all musical scoring, and the effect is a singular triumph. Absent a score, there is the satisfying texture of a newsroom full of typewriters, the tinny echo of office machines and the low buzz of workplace conversations. (When a soundtrack does finally pipe in — over a ‘Deep Throat’ scene — the effect is more chilling than just about any slasher pic or any thriller you could name.)

This was during an age of ‘naturalistic’ sound, when movies tried to capture voices and ambient noise in a way that sounded like real conversations and places, rather than performed dialogue recorded on sound stages. I have to admit a real soft spot for this style of filmmaking, partly because so many brilliant films from the 1970s used it — any Robert Altman film from that era, for example — and partly because it adds so much to the fabric of any film. I honestly don’t know why this kind of audio fell out of favor, but if I were a young filmmaker looking to make a mark today, I would make a film that sounds like “All the President’s Men.”


One Comment

  1. Nice to see you mention the “soundtrack” thing. I saw a documentary on editing movies and how soundtracks heighten or clue in the audience to certain feelings. I think in most movies today, it’s completely noticeable and I detest the fact that I know this music is supposed to make me feel scared or heightened or “pumped”.

    Back in Kuala Lumpur I saw a bootleg version of Bad Boys sans soundtrack and it was pretty damn cool actually. Just the guns, buzzing of engines, etc, etc. At first I thought the movie has no sound as the opening credits music wasn’t there. But I enjoyed it more this way.

    Which also reminds me of a haunted house that my class set up back in high school. I was so pissed that we had this great labyrinth going in total darkness and this one girl kept making all this stupid noise and shouting. It’s not very scary when you hear other people shouting and all. It would have been completely scary if it was dead silent and someone shocked you around the corner.

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