Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House Review
Justin Chang, Chicago Tribune
Los Angeles Times
It's hard to pinpoint the moment the audience might be tempted to give up on "Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House," a sleek, scattershot portrait of the FBI associate director who spent more than 30 years hiding behind the naughty nom de guerre of Deep Throat. For some it might be the movie's opening minutes, when that ponderously self-important title first appears on-screen. Or it might be an early scene in which Felt (Liam Neeson) has a tense reunion with his former colleague Bill Sullivan (Tom Sizemore), in which they stiffly recap their bitter professional rivalry.
I checked out a bit later, not long after Felt's fellow G-Men are shown frowning at the latest Watergate headlines, amateurishly reproduced in typefaces more reminiscent of my high-school newspaper than of the Washington Post circa June 1972.
Drawn from Felt's 2006 autobiography (written with John O'Connor), which was published a year after he revealed his identity as Deep Throat in the pages of Vanity Fair, "Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House" is a moody, unpersuasive history lesson that promises, but never delivers, the juice and urgency of an insider's account.
The film only intermittently pierces the skin of the FBI second-in-command who helped the Post's Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, among other Beltway journalists, unravel the Watergate conspiracy. And it barely penetrates the labyrinthine walls of the institution where Felt worked for 31 years, and whose integrity he sought to safeguard from the interference of the Nixon White House.
Felt is shown doing precisely that when we see him in April 1972, meeting with a few of the president's men, who inquire about the possibility of dislodging J. Edgar Hoover from his longtime perch as FBI director. Felt calmly replies that Hoover maintains a massive treasure trove of secret files on anyone and everyone in Washington, which he assures them will be kept perfectly safe -- a promise wrapped around a threat, delivered in a voice that merges silk and gravel.
Neeson's laser-like commitment to the task at hand serves the actor well here, as does a shock of gray hair and a natural gift for gravitas. He gives a skillful performance that sympathetically conveys the film's one driving idea: that Felt saw the integrity of the FBI as paramount and worth protecting even if it meant spilling some of those precious secrets in the most public forum imaginable.
It's probably wise that writer-director Peter Landesman ("Parkland," "Concussion") doesn't try to match the procedural brilliance of "All the President's Men," which reveled in the minutiae -- and, to a bold degree, the tedium -- of everyday journalistic work. But he might have done better to match that film's bone-deep sense of place. The scenes at FBI headquarters are heavy with portent but light on atmosphere.
The movie duly attempts to humanize its subject, and to complicate our sense of his heroism, by delving into Felt's use of illegal wiretaps against organizations like the Weather Underground, for reasons that hit unusually close to home for him and his wife, Audrey (Diane Lane in a thankless role). But that flimsy subplot feels like a desperate emotional feint in a movie that never locates its true focus.
Given the fraught tenor of our present political moment, that has to be considered a significant failing. At a time when it has never been more important to hold the FBI accountable or safeguard its independence, "Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House" offers surprisingly little resonance. It doesn't capture its own era well enough to even begin to speak to ours.
MPAA rating: PG-13 (for some language).
Running time: 1:43