Mark Felt (United States, 2017)September 28, 2017
For more than 30 years, one of the great mysteries of journalism and politics was the identity of Woodward & Bernstein’s key Watergate source, “Deep Throat.” Between Deep Throat’s period of contribution (1972-73) and his voluntary unmasking in 2005, the intense media scrutiny uncovered several possible “suspects.” One of those was Mark Felt, a senior FBI agent (#2 behind Hoover for many years) who would have had access to Deep Throat’s information. The Felt=Deep Throat connection remained speculative until 2005 when he “came out” in a Vanity Fair article - a revelation that was immediately corroborated by Woodward. Felt’s subsequent book, “A G-Man's Life: The FBI, Being 'Deep Throat,' and the Struggle for Honor in Washington”, co-written by lawyer John D. O’Connor (who did much of the work – Felt, at the age of 91, was suffering from dementia), provided the framework for this latest Watergate film, which was written and directed by Peter Landesman (Concussion).
Mark Felt tells the story from (unsurprisingly) Mark Felt’s perspective. (Innumerable books, magazine articles, and movies have offered differing vantage points – in particular, All the President’s Men in which Deep Throat was memorably portrayed by Hal Holbrook.) Felt, played with equal parts intractability and dignity by Liam Neeson, comes across as someone whose actions were motivated not only by his love and respect for the FBI and his country but by ambition. As the #2 in the FBI, he saw himself as the likely successor to Hoover and, when Nixon passed him over in favor of an outsider, Pat Gray (Marton Csokas), well, hell hath no fury… To this day, Felt’s motivations for leaking remain murky. Mark Felt leans toward the noble theories but doesn’t ignore that revenge and a desire for a promotion could have played a part. Deep Throat remains a heroic figure but one not without blemishes.
The movie opens around the time of Hoover’s death and, excepting an epilogue in 1978, closes with Nixon’s resignation. The pacing is uneven, especially during the last act when Landesman abandons the slow, methodical approach of the first 80 minutes in favor of a lightning-fast recap of events in the administration’s decaying twilight. This may be frustrating for viewers with only a cursory knowledge (or memory) of Watergate because it doesn’t connect the dots and make Felt’s role clear. We understand based on the narrative that he is fighting against Nixon’s attempts to corrupt and co-opt the FBI and that he is passing confidential information to Bob Woodward (Julian Morris) and Sandy Smith (Bruce Greenwood) but the movie doesn’t make it clear how Deep Throat’s revelations were subsequently used in the media campaign to undermine Nixon.
The film is on firm ground when detailing the internal FBI pressures and politics faced by Felt and his co-workers. Mark Felt illustrates an organization in the throes of upheaval. Hoover’s death leaves a vacuum of power that Gray is unable to fill and Nixon tries to take advantage of this. Felt, denied the opportunity to replace his boss and angry at how the administration is undermining the Watergate investigation, decides that his best option (perhaps his only option) is to turn whistleblower.
Scenes detailing Felt’s unstable home life are hit-and-miss. Interludes with his troubled wife, Audrey (Diane Lane), often feel superfluous, although we get a real sense of hurt and loss when Felt remembers and tries to locate his missing adult daughter, Joan (Maika Monroe), who has run away to join a commune. Although the purpose of the domestic sequences are to provide a balanced view of Felt, they aren’t substantial enough to accomplish that and end up seeming more like filler than a pillar of the story.
Liam Neeson is excellent. Regardless of whether he accurately embodies the real Mark Felt, he fulfills the role we expect from Deep Throat – a crusader who won’t back down. Neeson portrays Felt as rigid and uncompromising – neither warm nor fuzzy but worthy of respect. He is surrounded by a stable of capable character actors – Josh Lucas, Eddie Marsan, Bruce Greenwood, Tom Sizemore, and Tony Goldwyn. Diane Lane is solid in limited screen time as the troubled Audrey (who, in real life, committed suicide in 1984).
One difficulty in determining the historical veracity of some of what transpires in Mark Felt is that, although based on the title character’s memoirs, it’s unclear how much of those represent fact because, by the time the entire story came out, Felt’s memory was unreliable. Nevertheless, in a general sense, Mark Felt provides a window into the turmoil within the FBI during the Watergate years and the struggle that occurred to preserve the bureau’s independence. The movie is more about the events that resulted in Felt becoming Deep Throat than his work in that role. Although not the definitive Watergate movie, it illustrates an aspect of the scandal that to this point has not been given ample attention by filmmakers.
Mark Felt (United States, 2017)
Cast: Liam Neeson, Diane Lane, Maika Monroe, Josh Lucas, Eddie Marsan, Marton Csokas, Bruce Greenwood, Tom Sizemore, Tony Goldwyn
Screenplay: Peter Landesman, based on the book by Mark Felt & John D. O’Connor
Cinematography: Adam Kimmel
Music: Daniel Pemberton
U.S. Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics