I think that it is possible that no film in history before The Passion of the Christ could have been as theoretically unsuspenseful as All the President's Men. President Richard M. Nixon was tied to the conspiracy to cover-up the White House connections to the attempted bugging of the Democratic National Committee headquarters, and resigned from office in August, 1974 because of the story brought to light by Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. That's something that virtually everybody knows in 2009, 33 years after the film based on those events. And it pretty well stands to reason that back in '76, two years after it all happened, that anybody old enough to see a movie was even more aware of it than we are now. It is next to impossible to conceive of a viewer - beyond impossible if that viewer was an American who saw it in its first run - who might stumble into All the President's Men and not be aware that it ends with the triumph of the reporters and the resignation of Tricky Dick.

And yet, despite having a plot that could presumably contain no shocks whatsoever, All the President's Men is one of the most gripping, white-knuckle thrillers ever made, a movie that I have now seen five times, and every single time it's like a brand new story full of twists and turns that I can barely imagine. That, right there, is the power of a truly great film, and All the President's Men is not just a truly great film, it's one of the very best American political thrillers of the 1970s, absolutely the best decade for political thrillers that ever was or ever shall be - The Parallax View and Three Days of the Condor are the only films from the genre I would dare think to stack against it, and neither one of those had the handicap (benefit?) of being based on very recent true events.

In light of having directed The Parallax View and Klute, Alan J. Pakula might have seemed like the natural first choice to make the movie; but he wasn't. Robert Redford, who apparently was responsible for nearly every pre-production decision despite not receiving a producer credit, only came to Pakula with his idea to adapt Woodward and Bernstein's account of their reporting after at least John Schlesinger had turned the project down. There was no screenplay at that time, but clearly Pakula knew a good thriller when it bit him on the ass, so he signed up, directing a film for the first time without also taking a production credit (it may indeed have been the first film that came to him, rather than he seeking out a good idea to nurture). A tortured series of drafts by William Goldman that weren't quite right, plus some less-than-appreciated help from Bernstein's future wife Nora Ephron (God, think of how badly cinema history would have suffered if that draft had worked out), and the film was finally ready to enter production; and what came out the other side is unmitigated genius from everyone concerned, a ruthless thriller and a paean to the First Amendment that sums up its precise moment of the 1970s almost as well as The Parallax View sums up the disorientation of the turn of the decade.

Following with some slight fictionalisation and compression, but (it is said) much less than is customary for fact-based movies, All the President's Men opens with Woodward (Redford) and Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) pursuing some interesting holes in a local story of very little interest, a break-in at the Watergate Hotel, and almost without meaning to find themselves chasing down a story that involves more and more people throwing around larger and larger sums of money for darker and darker purposes, stretching all the way to... ah, you know. The great achievement of the film is that it doesn't expect to keep us guessing about what Woodstein will uncover, but by tracking in exacting detail how they uncover it. This is one of the great procedural movies of all time, rendering the act of investigative journalism with a precision that could only come from life, but also romanticising it all out of proportion. Most great movies that I get really pumped up watching just underscore the degree to which I want to make great movies of my own; but every single time I watch All the President's Men, I find myself wondering if it's too late to become a newspaper reporter.*

In little ways here and there, I've been trying to develop what I think might be the Unifying Theme of Pakula's Cinema, the idea that in one way or another, his films are all clinically removed psychological analysis of individuals in moments of stress, and I confess myself stuck with All the President's Men. I genuinely can't think of any convincing way to apply anything like that theme to this movie, though I had some thoughts about the Post as a character, critical bloviations like that. But there is another thing that has so far been true of every Pakula film: his precision and his inordinate ability to marshal the talents of a great many people to all give the best they're capable of, all in the service to a single end. He's not a classical auteur, I find, in that I do not feel compelled to ascribe everything about his movies to his own will; his films are obviously collaborative works. And yet, they equally obviously have a strong hand guiding them, and on this count, All the President's Men is surely a Pakula film: it really couldn't be better made in any respect. The cinematography, sound, editing, acting - all of them are effectively flawless. And the result is one of the tightest movies I have ever seen, speeding by like a hurricane wind at a relatively expansive 138 minutes, it's a film that could blow away a casual viewer as readily as it could impress a scholar conducting a frame-by-frame analysis.

Take, for instance, Gordon Willis; working for the third time with Pakula, his work here continues the almost inconceivably high level of quality found in The Godfather and its sequel and The Parallax View (nor would his run of awesomeness end for another few years yet: I'd say that at least Stardust Memories is still comfortably in this stretch of boundary-defying camerawork). It's hard for me to put into words how deeply effective I find this film's visuals. Willis gets in all of his trademark deep wonderful darks, of course, such as the introduction of Deep Throat (Hal Holbrook), one of my favorite shots in his whole career: we're looking at a figure buried in the shadows that doesn't even register as a human until he lights a cigarette, the match flaring briefly in a puddle of impenetrable black. But uncharacteristically, the use of bright lights is just as compelling. Every time I think of the film's depiction of the Post offices, I can't help but think of whiteness: pleasant, soft white lighting that casts no shadows and leaves the rows of cubicles and typewriters feeling like a haven of peace and safety in a world full of dark corners and dangerous places. It's like heaven, which makes Woodward and Bernstein avenging angels, I suppose. Willis also does some truly wonderful things with focus in the film, including an amazing long take with an amazing Redford performance and something especially amazing with a split diopter that frankly, nobody should have been able to do - but Willis does it, because he is God; it involves keeping certain parts of the frame in focus and certain parts out of focus, in a way that camera lenses just aren't built to do - you'll know the scene when you watch the movie, it's the unbearably long take that slowly pushes in towards Redford on the phone. And if you think this is a nicety that only film geeks pick up on, you're partially right - we're the ones who know the terminology. But if you suppose that the tension in the scene isn't helped out by the almost subliminal camera trickery, well, I can't prove it does, but it totally does. (I owe a debt of gratitude to Will Beckley for pointing out what was going on here).

Raising tension is absolutely the name of the game here: everything in the film is bent to that one purpose. The sound, with its evocative melding of typewriter keys clicking and gunshots; the editing, with its lingering long takes that just make us sit there and simmer. One cut I particularly adore, during the first interview with Hugh Sloan (Stephen Collins), cuts from a wide shot of the subject to a medium shot of the same man. It breaks every editing rule I know of, but it works ridiculously well: we've jumped forward as though leaning in to hear what he says, because we (like the reporters) are very anxious to here his next words. The performances are part of the film's fabric of suspense, as well, particularly Hoffman (but why single anyone out): giddy and nervous, afraid and resolved, all tumbling about chaotically like balls in a lottery drawing. You might say that All the President's Men is nothing but an exercise in creating and drawing out tension, and it is a brilliant success, one of the most thrilling thrillers of all time: a neat trick given that nobody dies and the ending is pre-ordained from word one. Some people go cliff diving; some drive fast cars; some of us just start up the movie and look forward to the moment two hours in the future when we've gnawed off all our fingernails.

I am aware that I'm gushing, and I apologise, but there aren't many movies I love quite this much. I'll try not to let it happen again.