In May of 2005, W. Mark Felt Sr. (1913-2008), the former assistant director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation revealed himself as Deep Throat, the confidential source who provided crucial assistance to Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein during their landmark investigation of the Watergate break-in scandal.
Until now, the most iconic image of Deep Throat came from the 1976 thriller “All the President’s Men.” Hal Holbrook played the mysterious informant who lurked in the shadows of a Virginia parking garage to secretly meet with Bob Woodward, played by Robert Redford, and advised the reporter to “Follow the money.” (That classic line actually came from the mind of screenwriter William Goldman, and not a quote Woodward actually attributed to his source.)
Since Felt’s revelation, numerous Hollywood figures have discussed the possibility of making a film focused on his life and career. At one point, Tom Hanks had been in talks to produce and star as Felt.
The film version finally materialized last month with the limited release of “Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House.” Written and directed by Peter Landesman and starring Liam Neeson in the title role, the film is based on Felt’s 2006 autobiography, which he co-wrote with John O’Connor.
According to Woodward’s account, he first met Felt, ironically enough, in the White House while working as a courier during his last year in the Navy. After leaving the service, Woodward decided to pursue a career in journalism and worked for the Montgomery County Sentinel for about a year before being hired as a crime reporter for the Post.
During this time, he stayed in contact with Felt, turning to him for advice about his career and eventually asked for assistance when covering the attempted assassination of segregationist presidential candidate George Wallace in nearby Laurel. Later, Woodward turned to Felt again when probing the cover-up of the Watergate break-in.
Characters at various points in the film describe Felt as an FBI “lifer.” One colleague even goes so far as to describe him as “the G-Man’s G-Man.” Landesman showcases events that lead up to Felt’s decision to turn whistleblower, and further illustrate how that decision ultimately played a key role in the downfall of the Nixon administration.
After earning his law degree from George Washington University, Felt worked briefly for the Federal Trade Commission before joining the FBI in 1942. He served at various field offices before being promoted to deputy associate director of the Bureau by its longtime head, J. Edgar Hoover.
The film begins in 1972, shortly before Hoover’s death. Felt is troubled when President Richard Nixon appoints Assistant Attorney General L. Patrick Gray to serve as acting director in the wake of Hoover’s passing. Gray, played by Marton Csokas, is a Nixon loyalist with little understanding of the Bureau’s operations.
In the aftermath of the botched robbery at the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate Hotel, Felt and his agents discover the burglars’ connections to the Central Intelligence Agency and the Committee to Re-Elect the President. The White House instructs the FBI to quickly wrap up their investigation.
These and other attempts by the Nixon Administration to politicize the Bureau’s work eventually lead Felt to begin leaking information to Woodward, played in this film by Julian Morris, as well as Time Magazine reporter Sandy Smith (Bruce Greenwood). At the same time, Felt attempts to reestablish contact with his estranged daughter Joan (Maika Monroe), who is active in the counterculture movement as it came into growing open conflict with the federal government, including Felt’s agency.
To his credit, while Landesman clearly intends for the audience to support Felt’s whistleblower actions, he does not portray him as a pure-hearted defender of democracy. While disturbed by the Nixon administration's actions, and several of the Bureau's "dirty tricks," Felt was hardly untouched by the culture of secrecy and abuses of power that characterized Hoover’s nearly 50-year reign at the FBI. Early in the film, after learning of Hoover’s death, Felt instructs his subordinates to shred many of his documents. The end of the film notes that Felt was eventually convicted by a federal grand jury for his role in supervising illegal wire-taps and break-ins targeting leftist groups such as the Weather Underground.
Landesman, a former journalist for the New Yorker and the Atlantic, creates a competent and efficient film – perhaps too efficient. At roughly 100 minutes, the film touches on a number of important issues and themes such as freedom of the press, the national security state, internecine government warfare, the mental and emotional toll of a life spent working in the intelligence community, and the generational conflict and upheaval of the Vietnam and Watergate era. However, there is little time to explore any of those themes in satisfying detail.
Neeson gives a fine, understated but compelling performance as a man of law and order confronting unexpected tumult in his professional and personal life. The entire cast, on the whole, performs ably, but one wishes they were given more material to work with.
According to Landesman, the film’s producers cut out a great deal of footage revealing the travails of Felt’s wife Audrey (Diane Lane), who eventually took her own life some years after the Watergate scandal. If what survives of Lane’s performance is any indication, the restoration of this footage would improve the film markedly. In an early scene, after Felt is passed over for the FBI directorship, Audrey complains to Felt about the effects of his various transfers on their family life.
“The one thing I could still tell myself, the one thing to make it worthwhile, is that Mark will get this job,” she says.
Ultimately, “Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House” (if you disagree with me that the film is too short, surely we can all agree that the title is too long) deserves to be seen for its topicality. The present-day relevance of the issues raised by the film, such as the reach of the national security apparatus and its implications for privacy, the role of whistleblowers and threats to a free and active press, hardly needs to be stated. Too few recent films have attempted to address such matters. Hopefully, there will be others.
“Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House” is rated PG-13, and currently playing at Bethesda Row Cinema, ArcLight Bethesda and E Street Cinema. For more information, visit the film’s webpage at http://sonyclassics.com/markfelt/.