Sunday 8 March 2020

Movie Review: Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down The White House (2017)

A political drama and biography, Mark Felt lifts the curtain to reveal a glimpse of the man behind the Watergate information leaks.

It's 1972 in Washington D.C, and legendary FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover dies from a stroke. His loyal Deputy Mark Felt (Liam Neeson), a staunch defender of the agency's mission, has every expectation he will be promoted to the top job. Instead the Nixon White House appoints inexperienced bureaucrat Pat Grey (Marton Csokas) as Acting Director. Mark's loyal wife Audrey (Diane Lane) is as disappointed as her husband.

The break-in at the Watergate Hotel starts to the make the news, and Felt mobilizes the FBI to investigate. But in short order pressure mounts from the White House to wind down the probe. Felt finds it increasingly difficult to function in an FBI subjugated by politics and witch hunts, and starts secretly feeding classified information to Time reporter Sandy Smith (Bruce Greenwood) and the Washington Post's Bob Woodward (Julian Morris).

At age 91 in 2005, Mark Felt revealed his identity as the informer known as Deep Throat, and he died just three years later. The film is caught in the gap between his story as a person and his famous whistleblower actions that helped bring down President Richard Nixon. In the end director and writer Peter Landesman, adapting the books by Felt and John O'Connor, offers a middling portrait of the man and a muddled foray into the political scandal.

Mark Felt spends large chunks of time away from the Watergate drama, occupied with an inside look at the FBI's machinations, good and bad. The agency's pride, efficiency and professionalism are a firewall against political interference, and the rot starts to spread when the White House seizes the opportunity of Hoover's death to plant one of their own at the organization's head. Felt tries to defend the fort, but it's a losing battle and eventually he resorts to press leaks as a weapon of last resort.

Maybe because the men surrounding Nixon are largely absent from the narrative and the White House's perspective is conveyed in television snippets, once Watergate erupts and grips the nation, the film is surprisingly inert. Landesman skips explaining the gravity of what Felt passed on to reporters, and a rush to the end credits leaves an empty feeling.

Felt's home life is introduced through a few interactions with his wife Audrey and their shared trauma over the disappearance of their daughter Joan (Maika Monroe) presumably to the world of hippie communes. The domestic sub-plot is conflated with the bombing campaign perpetrated by the Weather Underground. While all the background adds good context, it also serves to detract from Felt's role in one of the nation's greatest political dramas.

Liam Neeson is reliable if rather monotonal as an upstanding and upright FBI agent incredulous as the agency atrophies from the top. He defines the film's suitably nondescript shade, perhaps the best tribute to the man who managed to change history and remain totally invisible.

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