[This is a repost of my Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House review from the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival. The film is now playing in limited release.]
Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House may not be an action vehicle for Liam Neeson, but he certainly plays another driven man on a mission. This mix between a political thriller and biopic tells the true story of Mark Felt, the man who would become known as Deep Throat, as it chronicles the path that led him to leak highly sensitive information from the FBI to journalists at the Washington Post and Time Magazine, which then paved the way for President Nixon’s resignation. Deep Throat’s identity was unknown until 2005, and thus the story of exactly how he did what he did and why is relatively new territory even though the events took place decades ago. It’s a compelling story, told in an engaging way by writer/director Peter Landesman, but the film’s attempts to flesh out Felt’s personal life fall a little flat and it starts to overstay its welcome as the story has a bit of trouble sticking the landing. Regardless, it’s a fascinating story with a surprisingly strong tie to what’s currently happening in the U.S. government.
Felt was a career FBI agent and #2 to J. Edgar Hoover during his tenure as Associate Director of the bureau. But following Hoover’s death, President Richard Nixon began making moves to wield control over the most powerful investigative agency in the country, including installing former Assistant Attorney General (and thus non-objective party) L. Patrick Gray as acting FBI director. Just six weeks after Gray takes the job, the Watergate scandal happens, and we see as Felt’s normal way of operating becomes hindered by White House tinkering, despite the fact that the FBI is supposed to be an independent body.
As the film unfolds, we see Felt come to the difficult decision to betray the trust of the organization he holds so dear, if only to keep that institution’s esteem intact. Indeed, the first half hour or so of the movie is incredibly timely, almost humorously so, as we see Nixon’s men trying to get Hoover out of the top FBI spot only for Hoover to die. Thereafter, we see Nixon, via others of course, try to wield control over the FBI’s investigation into the Watergate scandal while Nixon and his attorney general publicly promise there’s no truth to the rumors that Nixon had anything to do with the Watergate break-in. It’s hard not to watch this unfold and think what kind of movie could be made about the Trump/Comey ordeal in 10, 20 years time. And to be clear, Mark Felt was in production well before Trump won the election—this was pure happy accident.
The first half of the film plays out like a taught political thriller, and it’s quite effective. Neeson gives a strong, assured performance as Felt, and in some of the film’s best moments you can see the toll this leaking is taking on Felt, who has to keep it entirely from everyone he holds dear all the while Nixon’s men and Gray are putting the pressure on Felt to find out who the leaker is.
Landesman’s handle on this film is mostly solid, and there are swell performances all around—this is one of those historical dramas where every supporting character is someone you “know.” Eddie Marsan and Noah Wyle pop up in what are essentially cameos, whereas Josh Lucas and Ike Barinholtz have more supporting roles as Felt’s subordinates at the FBI. But they all do very fine work.