MARK FELT: THE MAN WHO BROUGHT DOWN THE WHITE HOUSE
Director: Peter Landesman
Cast: Liam Neeson, Diane Lane, Marton Csokas, Josh Lucas, Tony Goldwyn, Michael C. Hall, Ike Barinholtz, Tom Sizemore, Brian d'Arcy James, Julian Morris, Bruce Greenwood, Kate Walsh, Maika Monroe, Eddie Marsan, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Noah Wyle
MPAA Rating: (for some language)
Running Time: 1:43
Release Date: 9/29/17 (limited); 10/6/17 (wider)
Review by Mark Dujsik | October 5, 2017
The parallels between the Watergate investigation and whatever is happening within the current administration are undeniable, but they're also irrelevant. After all, the people behind Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House likely had no idea that they would be making a movie that would seem so relevant. They definitely couldn't have imagined how Richard Nixon and his administration's war on the FBI, the press, and leaks regarding campaign and Executive Branch corruption would appear like a case of history repeating itself now. At times, it's fascinating to observe how the atmosphere of the 1972 presidential election and the mounting scandal after the fact was similar to the political climate of today.
All of this is accidental, of course, because the movie exists in the bubble of the era in which it is set. Further, it's isolated within the bubble of telling the story of only one player who helped to bring down a corrupt President. The movie's narrative limitations are to be expected, given the timing of when the movie was made and the story's focus on one man. Those limitations, though, aren't to blame for the movie's shortcomings. Those seem to be the result of a limited purpose on the part of writer/director Peter Landesman.
The movie may be a recounting of the events surrounding the investigation of the burglary of the Democratic National Committee office at the Watergate Hotel on June 17, 1972, but it's told from the perspective of Mark Felt (Liam Neeson), the man who would mostly be known by his given alias "Deep Throat"—the anonymous source who helped a pair of reporters at the Washington Post keep track of the Nixon administration and the FBI's maneuvers during the investigation. Landesman's screenplay (based on a pair of books written by Felt and John O'Connor) is closer to a character study than a biography, although it still sticks to the hows and whats of the story—not so much the whys.
The movie keeps Felt as something of an enigma. As portrayed in the movie, he's a man of principle who is more than happy to betray those principles if circumstances, in his mind, demand it.
What we learn is that he's an old-fashioned G-Man, who rose through the FBI under the command of J. Edgar Hoover—notorious for his extralegal investigations and wealth of personal files, which could be used for blackmail if necessary. The director's death about a month before the Watergate burglary causes Nixon to jockey for some insider influence within the bureau. Everyone within the FBI believes that Felt is next in line for the job, being Hoover's protégé and favorite. Instead, Nixon makes L. Patrick Gray (Marton Csokas), an administration official within the Department of Justice, acting director. Gray eventually relies on Felt, who already has begun clandestine meetings with members of the press, to find the source of the leaks.
The major question—left unanswered by and only vaguely discussed within the movie—is whether Felt's dedication to the Watergate investigation comes from a matter of principle or of vengeance. Hesitant to assign a clear motive to one of the most famous whistleblowers in American history, Landesman's screenplay has Felt overtly state his core beliefs in FBI independence to his colleagues in public and members of the press in private, while offering a subplot about his missing daughter's possible involvement in a radical left-wing group. His actions in trying to take down such groups, either to stop them or to find his daughter (or both), are presented as a contradiction. He's all for the rule of law when it comes to the President and the administration's corruption, but he overlooks or helps to create corruption under the authority of the FBI.
There's a lot to that idea, but Landesman doesn't want to address it, except to point out that it happens. Neeson is good as Felt, filling in some of the screenplay's blanks in regards to the character's contradictions and mixed motives by way of a forceful personality but, at times, troubled conscience. His performance is good enough that one wishes the movie supported it more. Instead, we're left to watch events unfold, although some of the internal and inter-governmental politicking is intriguing on the face of it (especially how Felt handles the suspicions and overreaches of Nixon's men, such as Michael C. Hall's John Dean, through a precise choice of words). Everyone here is out, first and foremost, to cover themselves from any potential fallout. That goes for Felt, Nixon's guys, and even the CIA, represented by a mysterious man played by Eddie Marsan.
We don't learn much that's new from this perspective, and we don't learn much about the man at the center of the story, apart from a few scenes of Felt's life at home with his wife Audrey (Diane Lane), whose ultimate fate is barely suggested in the movie, until some text at the end tells us that there was much more happening with her. In the end, Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House is a missed opportunity to shed light on this period of history in American politics and a man who almost single-handedly defined it.
Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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