'Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House'
It’s funny how some movies can suddenly feel more relevant on release than they were in conception. Back when writer/director Peter Landesman was developing his project about the FBI director who went rogue to bring down the Nixon administration, it must have felt like a paranoid history piece. Now, the story of an FBI agent willing to risk his career and legacy to destroy a corrupt U.S. President feels like a fantasy that we desperately need.
Liam Neeson stars as the titular Felt, a no-nonsense career FBI agent who was one of the most trusted men under J. Edgar Hoover. When his big boss suddenly dies, Felt finds himself passed over for the position. He’s hurt, but equally skeptical. When the Watergate scandal breaks and odd sanctions are put on what he’s allowed to investigate, Felt knows there’s trouble in Denmark. As he tries to quietly pursue other avenues, information always gets back to his superiors. Felt becomes convinced that the President is pulling strings and orchestrating a cover-up. Knowing that he has no way to fight against this oppression through conventional channels, he decides to leak what he knows to the press. It works. He becomes known as Deep Throat, though he never admitted that at the time or even for decades later.
Landesman’s paranoid bio-pic has two halves, one damn fine and the other distractingly dull. The strong half is the political thriller. Shot in tinted shadows and hard compositions like Michael Mann-lite, the movie crackles with tension. Neeson growls his way through a role of a poised and dignified man of secrets, forever of the edge of cracking yet never giving up. The movie piles up agendas and secrets without ever overwhelming viewers, carefully filling roles with recognizable and distinct character actors like Tom Sizemore, Brian D’Arcy James and Michael C. Hall so that you’re never lost. Even though viewers enter the tale knowing the outcome, the twists of the narrative and the tension of dodging so many powerful and mysterious men keeps things intense. It’s a carefully researched and engaging thriller that delivers the sweaty goods with style.
Unfortunately, the bio-pic aspect doesn’t go quite as well. Determined to ensure that audiences empathize with the steely and calculated protagonist, Landesman keeps shifting out of the Watergate focus into Felt’s home life and regularly kills momentum. Felt has a fraught relationship with his wife (Diane Lane) because she gave up so much for her husband’s career and their daughter ran away to join a hippie commune. Whenever the Watergate thrills get too entertaining, Landesman tediously cuts back to Felt apologizing to his wife or quietly searching for his daughter. The subplot never registers. It’s all too clear that this is here as a handy filmmaking device to force empathy, and it tears into a story that’s otherwise about big lies and the shifty silent men who keep them. They never quite gel together, and ultimately the storyline proves to be little more than a lengthy distraction from the good stuff.
For some viewers, that melodramatic home life parts will kill off the film’s good will. For me, it had a few fragile and successful emotional beats that worked and didn’t distract too much. It’s a shame that the filmmakers weren’t able to make a movie purely about the Watergate scandal and the man who risked so much to bring it down. This would have been a far more satisfying movie if that was the entire focus. Still, the balance isn’t too far off. ‘Mark Felt’ still works and comes with a side helping of fantasy by telling the true story of a corrupt President being taken down by passionate political players who cared more about the integrity of the institution than their careers. That makes it a movie that many will need right now, even if it isn’t perfect.