Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House [Review by Haus]
For anyone who wants a better angle on Deep Throat, Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House chronicles the famous Watergate leaks that catalyzed President Nixon’s resignation from the perspective of the Washington Post’s famously secret source. One of the best-kept secrets in journalism, it wasn’t until more than thirty years later, in a 2005 Vanity Fair article, that Mr. Throat finally outed himself as Mark Felt, assistant director of the FBI who’d served three decades as J. Edgar Hoover’s right-hand man. The revelation was a bit anticlimactic: Decades of speculation surrounded a whispered shortlist of high-profile could-bes, but when the truth came out, it seemed no one really knew who Mark Felt was. The world shrugged.
But Felt was the one, and this is his story. And boy, is it timely. For contemporary relevance, director and screenwriter Peter Landesman could hardly have timed it better. I’m told he started work on the script over a decade ago, and was already filming a year ago — well before the shock of the 2016 election. Nixonian levels of rot and scandal in the White House must’ve seemed very foreign in those halcyon days of 2016.
In an interesting casting choice, Landesman enlists a calm, collected, suave-suited-and-silver-foxed Liam Neeson to play Felt – the “G-man’s G-man,” a model of discipline, loyalty, and reliability, and a thirty-year veteran of the Bureau. Neeson’s Felt is even-keeled, no-nonsense, and wholly dedicated to the Bureau. Felt is a product of the Hoover era, and fancies himself next in line for the (FBI) Director’s chair. But his almost robotic devotion to the Bureau has taken a toll on his family. Moving house a dozen times, his wife (Diane Lane) has only Mark for company, and his daughter (Maika Monroe) ran away years ago – she’s off shacking up with communists, hippies, or worse.
Into this cool, greyish landscape, as Nixon seeks reelection, lands the news of the break-in at the Democratic HQ at the Watergate. The story unfolds, slowly, from a distinctly Feltian (and FBI-ian) perspective.
A thriller this isn’t – not only do we already know the big punchline (at least as it relates to Nixon) but the pacing is melancholy, sometimes sluggish. As Felt plods through time doing what he must, you may yearn for the whip-snap of the Redford treatment.
But Felt’s legacy is a tricky subject. To this day, some in law enforcement despise Mark Felt for breaking the FBI’s code of confidentiality. To the left, he’s at once a hero for blowing the whistle, and a pariah for his quite unrelated coordination of domestic wiretaps against those even tangentially linked to the Weather Underground (among others). (For the latter, he was indicted by a grand jury, and ultimately pardoned by Reagan.)
Landesman is a former journalist. And since the Watergate affair is pretty much the sacred origin story of investigative journalism, it’s understandable that the writer/director assumes some audience familiarity with it. Bring some basic knowledge to the party and you’ll be fine — just don’t expect a high-school-level explainer. Landesman stays close on Felt: Woodward for instance features only briefly in the film, and the journalists’ side of things is left largely undisturbed. That ground is of course well trodden, and these days the viewer can easily summon other installments in the Watergate canon to fill in the gaps. That said, those prior bites at this apple didn’t always leave much to munch on here. Felt’s Watergate story could have used a bit more suspense, and the script is a tad clunky in laying foundation for Felt’s family and Weather Underground woes.
All told, Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House offers a smooth, smart, and fresh portrayal of a pivotal moment in American political history. It’s cleverly cast, carefully shot, and properly smoky for a period piece. It’s a talkie, but one that’ll leave you yearning for simpler times — you know, when publicly breaking a massive scandal might actually exorcise a terror from the Oval Office.
Haus Verdict: Like Liam Neeson’s Mark Felt, this picture is solemn, collected, measured, and iron in its persistence.
Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House opened Friday September 29 in select markets.
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