The timely but tepid Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House introduces us to the man more popularly known as Deep Throat.
Felt (Liam Neeson) was a top-level FBI man when J. Edgar Hoover died and immediately became engulfed in the high-stakes legal and political drama surrounding the investigation into the Watergate burglary.
The Nixon administration wanted the investigation stopped, and so it bypassed an uncooperative Felt and installed its own handpicked man, L. Patrick Gray (Martin Csokas), to replace Hoover. Felt (correctly) regarded Gray as a Nixon ally installed to monitor the investigation on behalf of the administration and, possibly, quash it if necessary.
Felt saw this as illegal and dangerous to the nation, and so began leaking material to the press (Julian Morris plays Bob Woodward of the Washington Post, Bruce Greenwood is Time magazine reporter Sandy Smith).
Mark Felt unfolds like a spy caper — Nixonites know there is a disastrous leak coming from the FBI, and the job of finding that leak falls to Felt himself, who doesn’t mind deflecting attention and/or suspicion to subordinates (Josh Lucas, Tony Goldwyn) to keep his own name clear long enough to get the story out.
The movie works reasonably well as a thriller but falls apart in other areas. There are clumsy attempts to humanize Felt by delving into his home life — Diane Lane has a few boozy scenes as Felt’s wife, watching his promising career hit a wall, worried that all of her personal sacrifices may come to naught.
Felt also uses bureau resources to conduct a private investigation into the whereabouts of his missing daughter, aspects of which eventually lead to his downfall, and to a very silly scene at the end of the movie that finds Felt at a groovy commune — wearing his Men in Black garb, wading through the flowers and the hippies and the babies.
Neeson himself often looks embalmed in the movie, his hair sprayed and frosted, his skin pallid in the movie’s palette of washed-out whites and blues. The composition of the shots emphasizes his height, and he towers over the other actors as if he’s some kind of righteous ghoul.
Is this accent on Felt’s towering stature a metaphor or a prescient allusion to James Comey? The movie is an obvious nod to contemporary political circumstances, and a reminder that it is a very bad idea to have the White House trying to micromanage the affairs of the FBI, particularly at a time when the bureau is investigating the activities of current or former White House staffers. But the allusions add no snap to the narrative.
Mark Felt: The Man who Brought Down the White House
- Directed by Peter Landesman. With Liam Neeson, Diane Lane, Tony Goldwyn, Josh Lucas and Martin Csokas. Distributed by Sony.
- Parents guide: PG-13
- Running time: 1 hour, 42 mins.
- Playing at: Ritz East, AMC Voorhees.