‘Mark Felt’ is a curiously heavy-handed and stolid film. It feels well intentioned, and features an elegant, intense performance from Liam Neeson as Felt, the man now forever known in American political and journalistic lore as “Deep Throat.”
But the script and overall look of the film feel over-the-top in conveying the ominousness and gravity of the situations the titular character navigated himself through in the Watergate years. It’s as though writer-director Peter Landesman ("Concussion") feels the need to keep selling the audience on how important and relevant this story is, and how frightening its implications were for the future of our government institutions.
The result is a grim, occasionally tedious film that might do as much to distance viewers from any emotional connection to its subject matter as it does to illuminate the shadowy events and people at its heart.
What’s it about?
Of course, the story of “Deep Throat” and the source’s importance to the Watergate Scandal in bringing an end to Richard Nixon’s presidency in the early 1970’s has already been told in film, most notably in “All the President’s Men.”
“Mark Felt” tackles the subject from the point of view of the title character, who served 31 years in the FBI and was one of J. Edgar Hoover’s top lieutenants prior to Hoover’s death in May 1972. The film chronicles the power play between the Bureau and the White House that saw Felt passed over for Hoover’s position in favor of Assistant Attorney General F. Patrick Gray (Marton Czokas), and little over a month later the investigation into the break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate Hotel complex.
The crucial question at the heart of the film is what drove Felt, the very picture of the perfect ‘G-Man’ devoted to the Bureau and Hoover’s methods of running it, to divulge privileged information to the Washington Post and Time Magazine in order to bring to light the conspiracy behind the break-in.
Was it just devotion to the Bureau and the way Hoover ran it for all those decades? Or was the motivation more about Felt himself and the course his career took once Hoover was gone?
Grim and gray
It’s not long into “Mark Felt” before the film starts to feel burdened by its own weight.
Landerman as director and screenwriter grants audiences a quick glimpse into what Felt’s professional and personal lives were like prior to Hoover’s passing and the beginning of the Watergate saga, then plunges right in with the intrigues, the ominous “burn bags”, the secretive meetings in dimly lit offices filled with men smoking and looking worried.
By now, such scenes are what viewers are trained to expect from films about real-life 20th Century political conspiracies – the imagery and approach has all become rote and tired. That’s not to say it’s not accurate, for it may very well be as accurate as research will allow.
It’s just all been done so many times that just seeing it play out again, no matter how well it’s brought to life by talented performers, is at this point tiresome. It comes off as conventional and safe as a film-making approach, and in this project robs the proceedings of some of the immediacy and impact they might have otherwise had.
In addition, Landerman’s dialogue comes off at times as stiff and labored. The words sound as if the men speaking them were delivering them for posterity’s sake, rather than simply talking amongst themselves. Whether or not the words really were spoken in such a way doesn’t matter – the hint of artifice in the script and direction of the actors delivers a hit to any feel of authenticity “Mark Felt” may have been striving for.
Neeson, supporting cast solid
In fairness, Liam Neeson and the cast Landerman and the film’s producers assemble around him do their best with what they’re given.
Neeson himself adopts a physicality to play Felt that effectively conveys the complexity of the man. He projects dignity and conviction with his voice and manner, but also conveys weariness and weight as Felt walks his tightrope, moving back and forth between his roles as both whistleblower and investigator.
Diane Lane, playing Felt’s wife Audrey, adds another standout performance to a resumé that’s full of them. The film contains a subplot focused on the Felts’ searching for their errant daughter, Joan, and Lane makes the most of her opportunities to explore the devastating effect of the irony of their situation, the FBI’s deputy director either unable or unwilling to mount a search for his runaway child.
The film also benefits from strong work put forth by the collection of recognizable character actors surrounding Neeson and Lane, including Czokas, Tony Goldwyn, Tom Sizemore, Bruce Greenwood, and Noah Wyle.
The drama depicted in ‘Mark Felt’ may seem rather timely to certain audiences, considering the intrigues and daily drama involving the nation’s current chief executive, the FBI, and the media that currently fills our 24-news cycle.
In fact, one could probably make the argument that the film’s release could not have been timed better. It should be noted, though, that this is a film the screenwriter says he’s been wanting to make for years, lest anyone think he put it together recently to make some sort of statement about current affairs.
All that said, it’s tough to call ‘Mark Felt’ must-see material considering that it does seem to fall short of its ambitions. It’s a great story that results in only a mediocre film; thus, it may be more beneficial to those interested in the story to read the primary sources the film is based on instead.
Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House
Starring Liam Neeson, Diane Lane, Marton Czokas, Ike Barinholtz, Tony Goldwyn, Bruce Greenwood, Michael C. Hall, Brian d’Arcy James, Josh Lucas, Eddie Marsan, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Maika Monroe. Directed by Peter Landesman.
Running time: 103 minutes
Rated PG-13 for some language.