Film During my post graduate film studies course, we were asked to write a short piece unpacking the mise-en-scene of a famous film shot. I'd just recently watched All The President's Men and was fascinated by the Library of Congress scene in which the two reporters are photographed from above. Fortuitously it was also shot that many other people were fascinated with and within a few hours I was able to pull together enough research to knock something together. Here it is:
All The President’s Men
All The President’s Men (1976) portrays the true story of how Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, reporters from the Washington Post newspaper investigated the circumstances surrounding the burglary at the Watergate Building in Washington and how their journalism led to the eventual resignation of President Nixon. The subject of this essay is the “famous” Library of Congress reading room scene in which the reporters are attempting to ascertain, by checking every slip for items requested over a two year period, whether a White House aide has been looking for material related to Nixon’s presidential rival Ted Kennedy as part of an alleged smear campaign, The following will describe how the mise-en-scene underlines the difficulties the reporters faced and also their determination to succeed.
It is the first scene within the film without dialogue and that does not specifically give direct information pertinent to the plot, instead presenting themes on an entirely visual basis. Storytelling overall in the script is extraordinarily dense, and although screenwriter William Goldman is able to mask much of the exposition in excellent characterisation, cinematographer Gordon Willis would later admit, ‘if you went out to the restroom during the movie and came back, you would have missed something important.’ (Schaefer and Salvato, 1984: 296).
This long shot begins with a high angle close up of the hands of Woodward and Bernstein as they rhythmically sift through the requests. Relatively quickly the camera pulls backwards to reveal the journalists are heads down, deep in concentration. Surprisingly the shot does not end here; in a virtuoso move, the camera continues to pan backwards revealing the whole work table, then after a dissolve, the larger area surrounding them and after a further dissolve an extreme long shot of the entire floor of the reading room.
In a film that largely happens in close-ups and mid-shots, the audience attention is suddenly struck by a visual and technical spectacle and the effect is startling. The scene is reported to have cost $90,000 (Ehrlich, 2004: 114). As Willis describes, a crane could not be used so ‘a winch and a cable (were placed) in the top of the Library of Congress, and that winch actually pulled the camera up. It was done with an Airflex and some stabilizers to keep it from shaking […] My assistant built a radio-controlled focus system.’ (Lobrutto, 1999: 28).
The scene symbolically represents the story of the film, that of two men against an entire administration. It expresses the immensity of the task that lay ahead for the reporters, not just in searching through library cards, but in revealing the truth behind the misdeeds of the administration. Willis explains: ‘The idea was, Woodward and Bernstein were looking for “a needle in a haystack.”’(Lobrutto, 1999: 28) This was originally one slow continuous take (Lobrutto, 1999: 27) but the two dissolves and the speed of camera movement shorten the time between close up and extreme long shot emphasising the scale of the building as the protagonists becoming mere specks dwarfed by the larger space. If they do not entirely disappear from frame they become lost, ‘trapped in maze-like configurations whose spaces are perceptible only from a bird’s-eye view.’ (Cook, 2000: 366). The ’concentric circles’ (Lindamood, 1999) resemble the wheels of power they are attempting to puncture.
The lighting within the shot runs in opposition to the approach taken throughout the rest of film. The scenes within Washington Post offices are bathed in an oppressive ‘hard and unpleasant’ fluorescences, creating scenes in which absolutely everything is visible (Schaefer and Salvato, 1984: 297). Everywhere else in Washington is often ‘shrouded in darkness’ giving a ‘nourish tone’ (Ehrlich, 1984: 114), underlining the frustration that Woodward and Bernstein often express in the dialogue about their inability to see the whole picture, that patterns are there but that they cannot see them. That in this key scene, fill light is being used inside a large public building suggests that on this occasion the journalists are clear of a way forward, that they know the purpose of these particular actions and what they will prove or disprove.
There is a gentle antagonism existing between the two reporters throughout the opening of the film, but this scene is the first to demonstrate that they can work together and are presenting a united front. They appear almost symmetrically within the shot. The angle of framing is from above and they are looking downward and although their faces are not shown their stance with their jackets are off and their shirt sleeves rolled up, is one of concentration. The colour of the shirts, blue and white, is traditionally symbolic of power and authority. Their bodies are rigid in their seat, and although they make mistakes as they check the cards these are quickly remedied. This is the presentation of a single unit is an image repeated throughout the film as the pair stand together in doorways and close to each other in diners.
Director Alan J Pakula ‘needed to show that the materials Woodward and Bernstein used – typewriters, pencils, pads, and library cards – served as important weapons that could bring down some of the most powerful men in the country.’ (Toplin, 1996: 187) In this scene this focus is achieved through diagetic sound design. Even as the camera moves away from them, the synchronous sound of the flicking paper continues at full volume in the sound mix right up until the end of the shot, still audible over the music. In later scenes, a similar technique would be used in the newsroom as the only sound which can be heard are the reporter’s typewriters.
This scene generally suggests that Woodward and Bernstein are facing an impossible task as they appear lost in the immensity of the library’s reading room. But it also presents them as a united front, full of dogged determination. In the following scene it is revealed that the search through the records was in vain, with both reporters wondering if some slips had been pulled or names changed or if they’d missed a card. But in the next breath they suggest another possibility and so the investigation continues.
Cook, David A. 2000. Lost Illusions: American Cinema in the Shadow of Watergate and Vietnam, 1970-1979. University of California Press Ltd., London.
Ehrlich, Matthew C. 2004. Journalism in the Movies. University of Illinois Press, Illinois.
Goldman, Willian. 1975. All The President’s Men screenplay: May 10, 1975 draft. Wildwood Enterprises, Inc.
Lindamood, Brian. 1999. Cub Reporters. In Columbus Alive. http://www.columbusalive.com/1999/19991202/film1.html (link now broken)
Lobrutto, Vincent. 1999. Principal Photography: Interviews with Feature Film Cinematographers. Praeger/Greenwood, Westport.
Schaefer, Dennis and Larry Salvato. 1984. Masters of Light: Conversations With Contemporary Cinematographers. University of California Press Ltd., London.
Toplin, Robert Brent. 1996. History by Hollywood: The Use and Abuse of the American Past. University of Illinois Press, Illinois.
All The President’s Men. 1976. 133 mins. Production: Warner Brothers, Los Angeles. Directed by Alan J. Pakula.