The title “Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down The White House” seems a built-in spoiler, but a film simply with the name of a crucial whistleblower — or leaker — in the Watergate scandal likely wouldn’t have attracted audience interest. Mark Felt? Who?
“Deep Throat: The Man Who Brought Down The White House” would have made the connection, however. “Deep Throat” was the famous code name given the anonymous source used by Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward in the investigation of the Watergate break-in and cover-up, one that eventually led to President Richard Nixon’s resignation.
Felt, who died in 2008 several years after his secret was revealed publicly, was associate director of the FBI from May 1972 to June 1973, a period when Nixon was shifting from the last year of his first term to re-election to a second. That position that not only put him close to rivals L. Patrick Gray and Bill Sullivan for the FBI directorate, but in a crucial position to view the information uncovered by FBI agents in its investigation of criminal activity in the Nixon re-election campaign.
Liam Neeson plays Felt as a tightly wound FBI loyalist more concerned about the use of the agency for Nixon’s political ends, something interim director Gray (Martin Csokas) seems a willing accomplice.
Felt witnesses the destruction of J. Edgar Hoover’s personal files in the hours after the iconic FBI director’s death and orders a gloves-off investigation and pursuit of the Weather Underground, a leftist terrorist group responsible for a rash of corporate and government bombings in the late ’60s and early ’70s. His role in that, in fact, would lead to criminal charges of civil liberties violations although “Mark Felt” suggests that the disappearance of his adult daughter Joan around that time, presumably to join the counterculture, made it a personal and emotional issue for him.
Landesman, who wrote and directed the film, casts Felt as a man treading a dangerous tightrope as the Watergate investigation begins to deepen. As he tells his agents “Our job is to follow the bread crumbs . . . (and) the bread crumbs seem to be taking us on a tour of the west wing of the White House.”
He’s caught between concern as agents Ed Miller (Tony Goldwyn) and Charlie Bates (Josh Lucas) find increasing evidence of White House involvement; fear the public isn’t paying attention, a fear that leads him to leak information, some classified, to Woodward; and increasing pressure from Gray to find the FBI leaker and deliver “the traitor’s head on a platter.”
Compounding the pressures that lead to Felt’s increasing consumption of cigarettes and scotch is his wife Audrey (Diane Lane) and her increasing suspicion of her husband’s involvement. There’s also the grief of a missing daughter.
Neeson’s cool intensity, even if his character seems less moved by idealism than professionalism, drives the story. The movie seems to travel a standard “righteous whistleblower vs. villainous opposition” path when Felt is contrasted to Csokas’ hectoring, bullying Gray, and Tom Sizemore’s vaguely corrupt FBI colleague Bill Sullivan.
Its closing moments, however, steer “Mark Felt” from cliche with a bit of reality: His professional past catches up with him while closure with his daughter show more of his human side. That human messiness may complicate what viewers take away.
It’s hard to watch “Mark Felt” dispassionately as much of it seems to echo, deliberate or not, the current efforts of the Trump White House to crack down on administration leakers — the same questions about where loyalty should lie, a controversial FBI investigation, whispers of coercion or coverup. “Mark Felt” was filmed in early summer 2016 when a Trump presidency wasn’t a certainty, so those echoes likely weren’t intentional.
As with so much these days, though, that depends on what you want to read into it.