Magical Scene: The Library of Congress Scene in “All The President’s Men”

all the presidents men library of congress

“All The President’s Men” up to this point in the movie is filled with quick cuts, exposition and dialogue. It is so dense, I wonder if an audience member would be able to follow it if they had no prior knowledge of Watergate.

Two reporters, Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman), are investigating a break-in at the Democratic National Committee inside the Watergate Hotel. They get a tip that one of the men who planned the burglary, Howard Hunt, worked for the White House and was investigating Ted Kennedy. They try to find out Hunt’s library records from the White House but to no avail. So they head to Library of Congress to find out every book checked by the White House over the last two years. This means searching through thousands of slips of papers in search of Howard Hunt’s name.

What follows is the first scene without dialogue in the movie. It begins with a high angle close up of Woodward and Bernstein’s hands shuffling through the paper slips. Only the shuffling of paper and an ominous score can be heard.  The camera begins to pull back and reveals the journalists in deep concentration. The camera rather than remaining static amazingly begins to pan back to reveal the entire table. Then there is a dissolve. We then get a long shot of the entire library as the camera begins to pull away. Then there is another dissolve before we see an extreme long shot of the library.

It’s an incredibly effective use of mise en scene. Up to this point in “All The President’s Men,” the movie was shot in simple close ups and mid shots. However, Gordon Willis, who was the cinematographer for “Manhattan” and “The Godfather” as well, chose to jar the audience so that they are aware of the change in visual language. It is a highly symbolic choice. It represents what these two reporters are up against not only in the Library of Congress, where they have to shuffle through thousands of papers, but in terms of revealing the corruption of the Richard Nixon White House. But it also represents Woodward and Bernstein as a united front, as they are shot almost symmetrically as if they are a single unit.  The scene is a perfect example of how the visual language of film can work convey meaning. Without any dialogue, the audience implicitly understands what the director and cinematographer are trying to convey.

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