By Dan Cava
October 20, 2017
The Watergate scandal is the best story John Le Carré never wrote, and famed Watergate whistleblower Mark Felt could be the ultimate real-life George Smiley – an intelligence agency lifer caught in a Greek tragedy of failed espionage, failed loyalties, failed family, and fully flowered hubris. Felt was know for years only as “Deep Throat,” the mysterious high level informant who leaked critical intelligence to the press at the height of the Watergate scandal, and his identity was closely guarded for over forty years. Peter Landesman’s new film Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House attempts to bring America’s most secretive of men into the spotlight. Unfortunately, Mark Felt chooses “complication” over “complexity,” and the film’s tone and lead performance are too one-note to accommodate the finesse of the truly great spy stories.
Watergate is a maze of details, and to its credit Mark Felt does give us the feeling of the complexity without bogging us down in contextless details. If anything, viewers more familiar with the history may sense the pruning knife’s presence a bit too much. In order to keep Felt in the clearest possible focus, the characters and circumstances around him have been somewhat oversimplified. Antagonists are a bit too antagonizing, and political figures act with un-nuanced ambition. The “bad guys” tend to sit in shadows, and their actions do more to reveal their desire to cover up than, you know, actually cover anything up. All this does serve to make Mark Felt’s actions seem necessary, and perhaps rightly so, but a feeling of superficiality pervades the entire proceedings, and it’s hard to shake the feeling of an opportunity missed.
Perhaps the strongest element of the story is the screenplay’s handling of felt mixed motives. Landesman resists the urge to over-ennoble Felt. Felt was not merely an idealistic whistleblower. He was a stalwart company man: a jilted heir apparent and fading patriot whose years of professionalism and service were burned up in the inferno of connivances surrounding Richard Nixon. Appropriately for any character who has dedicated his life to deception, we can’t be completely sure why Felt does any specific action, but we know the grab bag of grievances he might be pulling from.
Liam Neeson is a wonderful performer, and his recent work in Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece Silence is a reminder of the subtlety and power of which he is capable. Here however, Neeson seems to have been cast more for his moral presence than for his range. Felt plays like an exhausted version of Neeson’s character in Taken, whose unique set of skills have moved from the gritty streets to the fluorescent-lit hallways. Using a labored American accent and that too-familiar bassy vocal pattern (some brave director needs to steer him away from ending all of his sentences with the Neeson Rumble), the character Felt is forced to scowl and growl his way through the movie.
The rest of the casting itself is mostly stellar. Diane Lane is mesmerizing as Felt’s unsteady wife, a woman who comes undone when her husband cannot. Tom Sizemore carries off a Nixon-like character with characteristic ease, and Dexter’s Michael C. Hall brings more strength to White House attorney John Dean than most previous filmmaker’s have dared. Perhaps my favorite choice was The Mindy Project’s Ike Barinholtz as Felt’s hemmed-in assistant Angelo Lano. Barinholtz’s comedic intelligence is neatly represented as a kind of kinetic competence. The performances exceed the roles, however, and I would loved for these characters to have been given more space to breathe than the movie’s suffocating atmosphere allows.
Given the canvas and stakes, the world of Landesman’s film feels surprisingly small – perhaps a necessary measure to tell the story, but one that has the unfortunate result of causing the film to feel like an over-budgeted TV movie. The decision to paint the entire movie in blue hues stifles the scope, and the minor key music score only allows for a handful of moods.
Still, the movie has a great and unshakeable primary asset in the story itself. Felt and Watergate make for infinitely fascinating material, and the movie’s serviceable screenplay and list of engaging actors manages to honor the core elements of the narrative. Mark Felt is diverting and intrinsically interesting at its best moments, and certainly does not detract from the wide body of film work dedicated to Watergate. It’s just that the subject matter deserves something more than the merely serviceable treatment it is given here. Mark Felt the man told us things we will never forget, but Mark Felt the movie isn’t likely to follow suit.
Star Rating: 2.5 out of 5