In “Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House,” we have a film that is culturally significant but at best decently made. It’s an account of crime and stonewalling denials from the Nixon presidency during the Watergate investigation and the secretive whistle-blowing by Felt, an assistant director at the FBI handling the federal investigation. (Some viewers might say it echoes current events, but such similarity is coincidental; it was written in 2006.)
Liam Neeson is pitch-perfect as Felt, a tall, distinguished-looking man with perfectly combed gray hair, a cool, resolute attitude and a deep voice. The character is efficiently sketched in the opening sequence, quietly performing the morning rituals in his flawlessly tidy, plain-vanilla suburban house. By the time he heads to bureau headquarters in his dark suit, white shirt and muted tie, we recognize him as a formal man in control of life’s details.
Having spent 40 years climbing the FBI ladder to the position of second in command, Felt was the logical successor following the 1972 death of Director J. Edgar Hoover. Instead, Nixon nominated L. Patrick Gray III, a longtime loyalist. The film shows that decision as a blow to Felt and a key element in what’s to follow.
Determined to build public and political pressure against an administration trying to manipulate his agency for partisan reasons, Felt anonymously feeds information to the news media, which labels him Deep Throat. Using instincts accumulated over a lifetime of intelligence work, he knows exactly when to glance over his shoulder when making a clandestine call from a phone booth on a rainy night.
This return to an earlier era of Washington scandal will be an exercise in nostalgia for some viewers, a revelation to others and a cautionary tale to many. But few will find it deeply moving on a human level. Writer/director Peter Landesman (who also served double duty on the JFK assassination drama “Parkland”) tries to present Felt as a fascinating figure, but his less-than-compelling personal life offers few opportunities. We meet his estranged wife (Diane Lane) and hear a story about how he broke FBI policy by assigning agents to check hippie communes after his daughter wandered off. But that’s a small sidebar to the film’s main focus.
It’s Felt’s spy craft that gives this tale value, the bureaucratic chess games of matching wits with his new supervisor, the White House and various colleagues that create a sense of genuine intelligence at play.
It’s hard to see this film in isolation from its magnificent predecessor “All the President’s Men,” which told the tale from the viewpoints of Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. “Mark Felt” mimics some of the earlier film’s scenes and dour mood, but it never equals the Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman original. This is a fact-rich but drama-poor film, constructed with professionalism but lacking passion.