When it was finally told, in the pages of Vanity Fair, in 2005, the story of Mark Felt, the Deputy Associate Director of the FBI, and how he became the legendary Watergate mole Deep Throat was surely one of the most dramatic reveals in American history. Yet since the truth has already been revealed, how much drama is there left to the story? “Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House,” written and directed by Peter Landesman (“Parkland”), demonstrates that there’s a lot of drama left to it — enough, in fact, that when the movie is over, it leaves you suspecting that it only wedged a portion of that drama onto the screen. What might, theoretically, have been “All the President’s Men” told from a reverse angle feels more like a prosaically engrossing TV-movie that whets your appetite for a more definitive treatment of the subject.
Of course, you could argue that government leaks from the highest levels, a corrupt president, internecine battles between rival factions of the Washington power establishment, and the national hunger for a cathartic whistleblower — even if we have no idea who he is — could scarcely be more relevant than it is today. And you’d be right. Yet “Mark Felt,” despite bits of bureaucratic cloak-and-dagger intrigue and a commanding lead performance by Liam Neeson, is a film that pings off relevance more than it feels charged with it. Forty years ago, the bar in this genre was set high — “All the President’s Men” remains one of the greatest of all American films — and by that standard “Mark Felt” comes closer to being a quasi-interesting footnote. Despite some potent onscreen moments, expect a modest box-office performance and, with the exception of Neeson, little to no buzz on the awards circuit.
If anything, the most topical aspect of “Mark Felt” isn’t even the cataclysm of Watergate — it’s the fact that the movie is really about the ultimate high-stakes game of office politics. Early on, Neeson’s Mark Felt is summoned to a meeting with a few of the president’s men, notably the attorney general and the White House counsel John Dean (Michael D. Hall). It’s 1972, and when Felt enters the room, he towers over all of them — not just in height, but in aura. Neeson, in an immaculate suit, with a head of steel-wool hair, a noble profile, and a voice of clipped mellifluous purpose, is like a graying eagle: dignified and exacting, but unmistakably a bird of prey.
Felt has worked closely with the director of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover, for 30 years, and he explains how Hoover’s fabled system of “private files” work. The FBI gathers up pieces of information — gossip, embarrassing tidbits on romantic affairs, straight and gay — about the people who work in Washington. And Hoover lets them know that their secrets are safe with him; in other words, he’s got the goods to blackmail half the town. Since Hoover’s obsession with secrecy and (illegal) surveillance is the most famously deplorable side of his legacy, we wonder how Felt, who knows where the bodies are buried but still comes on like a wholesome if cutthroat Scout leader, could align himself so closely with these glorified Mob tactics. Here’s how: The way he sees it, Hoover, in his despotic way, is committing a necessary evil, using the very sleaziness of his operation to maintain the FBI’s independence.
As the political karma would have it, Hoover dies on May 2, 1972, and scarcely a month later, on June 17, the Watergate break-in happens. It will take a long time (more than a year) before the media, secretly bolstered by Felt, and the rest of the nation begins to put together what the break-in means: how high up in the government it leads, and what it’s really about. But within a few days, when Felt learns that the burglars were all former CIA and FBI operatives and that more than one of them was connected to the Committee to Re-Elect the President, he — unlike the journalists — can put two and two together. He grasps that Watergate is the tip of the iceberg, and he knows just what the iceberg is: the low crimes and dirty tricks that the Nixon White House has been running for several years. He wants the FBI to do what it has always done — investigate — and, of course, he wants to be promoted to take over his old boss J. Edgar Hoover’s job. But he will get neither wish.
Instead, President Nixon — an unseen presence in the movie, except on TV news clips — calls Felt and tells him, in that corporate way, that they’re going in another direction. As acting director, Nixon installs L. Patrick Gray (Martin Csokas), the first outsider to head the organization, and from day one he becomes the president’s toady and sometime informer. It’s not that he’s willfully corrupt. It’s that he believes, mistakenly, that the president is his boss.
Felt knows well that the Watergate scandal is a dirty business. But when he starts spilling beans of information to his journalist contacts — not just Bob Woodward of the Washington Post, whom he calls from a payphone outside a laundromat, but Sandy Smith of Time magazine, whom he meets with in a grimy diner — it’s because he’s trying to save the FBI. In his view, once the FBI loses its independence, it can’t get it back. And if that happens, America won’t have a valiant national police force. It will have chaos.
The brilliance of “All the President’s Men” — the reason it’s a movie you can watch again and again — is its galvanizing authenticity; you feel the ink on the typewriter ribbons, and the way that reporters think and work. “Spotlight,” in a smaller way, had the same dogged current of fluorescent realism. But “Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House,” while it gives the inter-office tussles a surface vividness, lacks that ultimate ring of truth. Martin Csokas, as Gray, is too smarmy (at times, he comes off like a Kevin Spacey character), and the actors playing FBI agents, like Josh Lucas, are too soft and cuddly. The film’s look is dankly oppressive in an amateurish way, submerged in moody-gloomy lighting that’s almost literally blue.
That said, the biggest disappointment of “Mark Felt” is that while it takes us inside the corridors of FBI power, the film is scattershot about portraying its ostensible subject: Felt’s leaks to the press. Neeson and the always excellent Bruce Greenwood, as Sandy Smith, work up some clandestine chemistry, but Bob Woodward comes off as an afterthought in this movie. Julian Morris, who plays him, looks and acts too boyish, and while you expect a movie called “Mark Felt” to feature a wealth of insider detail about how, exactly, he arranged his parking-garage meetings with Woodward and how their rapport developed, we see almost none of that. Too often, the details are slippery.
The movie sketches in Felt’s wrenching personal life. His wife, played by Diane Lane, is depicted as a supportive but depressive alcoholic whom Felt is too devoted to his work to make happy, and he spends his every spare moment trying to track down their runaway daughter, a countercultural flake who vanished the year before. He’s worried that she has fallen in with the Weather Underground, whose increasingly violent actions he’s tracking in his role at the FBI — scenes that look, at times, like something out of “Taken: D.C. Crime Files.”
Through it all, Neeson cuts a riveting figure of stoic torment and silvery will. He plays Felt, “the G-man’s G-man,” as an intensely conservative firebrand who has seen it all, and will accept a mountain of government sins as necessary realpolitik, but who regards the tyranny of the Nixon White House as something new: a threat to the Republic, because it upends the national balance of power. You could say that the movie is a good pedestal for Neeson (it is), but you could also say that he towers over the rest of it (he does). The last part of “Mark Felt” feels as if it lost crucial scenes, with everything from Nixon’s resignation to the resolution of Felt’s daughter crisis crashing in out of nowhere.
How relevant does “Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House” look? A year ago, the answer might have been, “Not that much.” But the looming scandals of Donald Trump have created the most urgent context for it imaginable. In the new culture of journalistic leakers, where even those who are, or were, most loyal to the president — like Steve Bannon — are described as secret sources for the mainstream media they claim to revile, it’s impossible to watch “Mark Felt” without speculating on who might become (or already be) the Deep Throat of the Trump administration. Yet if the current scandals heighten the movie, they also diminish it. Forty-five years after Watergate, it’s still playing catch-up.