The Watergate moment sucks in all the oxygen in “Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House.” Sure, Felt’s position as the source dubbed “deep throat” was integral to President Nixon’s resigning, but what really brought down the king? Save that question for another film. A better one…
Feeling very much like a well made History Channel entry complete with the lengthy explanatory title, “Mark Felt: et al.” is a somber telling of a familiar story. While the perspective has shifted from the journalists to the hidden source, the message is the same—power and corruption go hand-in-hand.
An associate director of the FBI, Mark Felt carved a fine 30-plus year career with the Bureau under director J. Edgar Hoover. He was, as the film reminds us frequently, “the G-Man’s G-Man.” His allegiance to the FBI was only second to his loyalty to his country. But these priorities, according to the script by director Peter Landesman who worked from books by Felt and John D. O’Connor, caused him problems at home.
The film picks up around the time of Hoover’s death on May 2, 1972. Felt, fearing that his boss’ secrets might get out, immediately rallies his agents and disposes of Hoover’s secret files. Earlier in one of the film’s most chilling moments, Felt coldly reminds President Nixon’s team that the Director has for years kept files on everyone, but most of that information, personal and embarrassing in nature, never needs to be used. This threat will ultimately factor in as the Watergate scandal breaks.
Felt is played well by the tall, lean, seemingly ageless Liam Neeson, who at 65 shows no signs of slowing down. Felt’s wife Audrey is played by Diane Lane, in a completely wasted role. I read that Lane was supposed to have a bigger part, but for some ridiculous reason, her scenes were cut. I suppose the producers saw more market value in scenes in which Neeson squares off with a really diminished Tom Sizemore, who may be entering the Brian Dennehy phase of his career. Regardless, the film desperately needed more Lane.
“Mark Felt” works best when the focus is not on the Watergate scandal. Felt’s relationship with Audrey and his daughter manages to put a lump in your throat. This makes the familiar White House turmoil less interesting, as you want to get back to the personal family crisis. Read about Felt after his fall from the Bureau, it’s really sad and could make a good movie all by itself.
Shot by Adam Kimmel who also lensed “Never Let Me Go” and “Capote,” this movie, unlike those excellent looking films, has no life to it visually. Everything mirrors the mood of the screenplay—blues and dark purples, browns that are really ugly. Of course, this is all intentional, but I think to nearly uniformly paint the film in this color palette is a mistake.
Unforgivable is that “Mark Felt” never rises above interesting and many will find it dull. Humor could have helped, as the narrative ends up being a pedantic procedural. At times, it’s positively leaden. But Neeson and the fine cast of popular faces help keep things watchable even as the script veers off and delivers a tacked on conclusion reminding us that this is Mark Felt’s story and not about Watergate.
But ultimately Landesman’s script is a bit of Frankenstein’s monster, clearly not sure whether it’s subject is entertaining enough to justify feature treatment and throwing in Watergate elements in hopes of capturing audience attention. The result is not a biopic of Felt but something in between. And that adds up to one bland picture, as bland as the look of the images on screen. This confirms that, at least, cinematically, the Watergate moment may have passed.