While it’s certainly complex to explain to those too young to remember it, the Watergate scandal was one of the most intriguing chapters in American history. It was the first (and most severe) time Constitutional checks and balances had to be brought against an entire presidential administration. The double-whammy of Viet Nam and Watergate replaced Americans’ wide-eyed enthusiasm for its leaders with a disrespectful sense of doubt still present today. (Witness the White House’s current resident.) America no longer trusts its commanders as it did prior to the 1960s.
Three years before his death in 2008, former FBI Associate Director Mark Felt came clean to the American public that he was, in fact, the anonymous informer (known as “Deep Throat”) who leaked classified information to Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward, which subsequently ended the Nixon administration. Prior to 2005, most Americans had either (a) never heard of Felt, or (b) had long since forgotten the name.
Peter Landesman (“Concussion”) has written and directed the new biographical account “Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House,” based on Felt’s 2006 memoirs. It is a peculiar film in that it sheds no real light on the Watergate scandal, other than to position Felt as a “champion” whistleblower, a la Edward Snowden, who leaked classified information on America’s global surveillance program. Ironically, both Snowden and Felt had realization that their betrayals would inflict personal harm on some individuals, yet they both proceeded out of a sense of duty to the ideals of their country.
But unlike Snowden, a relatively low-level operative, Felt was J. Edgar Hoover’s right-hand man. When Hoover died in 1972, Felt was the logical choice to lead the independent investigative unit. If Felt was hurt when President Nixon instead appointed agency outsider L. Patrick Gray, such feelings are never emoted by Liam Neeson, who plays Felt as the consummate professional – serious, accurate, and driven, even at the expense of family time. Diane Lane is essentially wasted in her role as Felt’s long-suffering wife Audrey. Of greater curiosity is the Felt’s teenage daughter Joan (Maika Monroe), who had fled her home and family about a year before the action of the film begins.
And I use the term “action” with some reservation, as “Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House” features almost no action whatsoever – unless you find excitement in watching a series of hushed late-night phone calls from phone booths, and secret meetings in back alleyways. I do like Landesman’s choice of 33-year-old Julian Morris to play Bob Woodward, the young Post reporter who broke the scandal in the press. While I understand Alan J. Pakula’s 1976 thriller “All the President’s Men” is a classic, Morris’ Woodward is more realistic than Robert Redford’s 40-year-old Hollywood star version.
And here the comparison must be made. No matter how much you admire Felt and his patriotism, “Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House” simply pales in comparison to “All the President’s Men.” One would think a look at Watergate through the eyes of Deep Throat might be a fascinating new take on an old story. And I must say, the new film isn’t awful. But the Pakula picture was brilliant – an investigative procedural, yet at the same time an edge-of-your-seat thriller. Through no real fault of its own, the new film does not measure up.
I’m sorry to have to make the comparison, but try to imagine “Gone With the Wind” as told from the point-of-view of Ashley Wilkes. Comparisons would be inevitable. And that’s what we have here. Mark Felt is an alluring subject, but the true excitement of the Watergate scandal emanates from the investigative angle. As the FBI’s task is investigation, “Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House” should be more interesting. It is not.
I have one final concern about Landesman’s film. We never know if Felt exposes the Watergate scandal because he’s upset about being passed over for promotion or because he knows Gray is in collusion with the White House cover-up. Or perhaps a little of both. Maybe we’re not supposed to know. Neeson does an excellent job of withholding his emotion and still creating a mildly absorbing character. I only wish the screenplay and direction had been worthy of his performance.