Film Review: Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House

The FBI agent who helped break open the Watergate story is the center of a tepid dramatization from writer and director Peter Landesman.
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Known for years only as "Deep Throat," Mark Felt was a key figure in Watergate investigations that led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon. Careful to a fault, this biography tells some of his story without ever fully showing viewers his importance.

Deep Throat first surfaced in Washington Post stories by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, later turned into the best-seller All the President's Men. Alan J. Pakula's film adaptation of that book set a high standard which Mark Felt clearly hopes to match.

But All the President's Men was structured like a mystery, as the reporters uncovered clues to find out who did what. In Mark Felt there is no mystery, no real secrets to uncover. A crime is committed, Nixon and his cronies try to cover it up, and Felt leaks info to thwart them.

As writer and director Peter Landesman tells it, Felt comes off as a longtime FBI bureaucrat trying to protect his job against newcomers. True, the newcomers include some especially insidious Nixon appointees like acting FBI director Pat Gray (Marton Csokas), professional rat John Dean (Michael D. Hall), and boorish bag man Bill Sullivan (Tom Sizemore). And with Nixon re-elected in a landslide during the course of the story, the odds are against Felt being able to maintain the Bureau the way it was under his old boss J. Edgar Hoover.

Landesman sets out his old-vs.-new, good-vs.-bad arguments in a reasonably brisk manner. (There's no mistaking whose side Sizemore is on, for example.) What's missing is a larger context, a sense of what's at stake for the country. Viewers won't learn enough about what the Nixon administration was doing, just how mendacious the people involved were.

The movie is pretty mum about Felt too. He's seen giving info to friendly contacts like Time journalist Sandy Smith (Bruce Greenwood) or Woodward (Julian Morris). Then he yells at his staff when those leaks wind up in the press. What must have been unbearably tense, high-stakes maneuverings in real life come off as rote and repetitive instead.

The problem's not really with Neeson, who is effortlessly commanding in every scene. But years of action movies like the Taken franchise have taken a toll on the actor's screen persona. You keep expecting Felt to snarl out a one-liner before pistol-whipping an opponent. When he doesn't, it's frankly disappointing.

Landesman reaches for the ensemble feel of a movie like Spotlight, but the supporting cast here is surprisingly unmemorable. Diane Lane's charisma adds some spark to her role as Felt's wife Audrey, but you could never tell from the movie just how troubled the character was in real life. Strong character actors like Brian d’Arcy James (a Spotlight veteran) and the usually reliable Tony Goldwyn have almost nothing to do.

Cinematographer Adam Kimmel favors icy blue tones for most of the movie, but overall Mark Felt is too refined to convey the fearsome malevolence of the cheats and crooks in charge of the Nixon administration. (Not that Felt was blameless—he was later convicted of violating defendants' Constitutional rights.) Despite impeccable credentials, Mark Felt is a missed opportunity.

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