The name Mark Felt was one of Washington DC’s best-kept secrets for years. From 1972 to 2005 theories and rumours echoed through the halls of power as to the real name of Deep Throat, the pseudonym given to the secret informant who provided information to Bob Woodward that kick started the Watergate scandal. Now that it’s known that the mysterious figure was actually Mark Felt, the Deputy Associate Director of the FBI, how is it possible to make a cloak-and-dagger thriller out of the story when even the name, the lengthy, “Mark Felt – The Man Who Brought Down the White House,” gives away the plot?
The film begins as stone-faced keeper of secrets Felt, played by Liam Neeson, learns his boss of thirty years, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, has died. It is presumed that, given his years of experience and service—he’s the G-man’s G-man—that he’ll be offered the top job. “You’re the chief dragon slayer and keeper of the American dream,” says his wife Audrey (Diane Lane).
His new case looks promising as well. He and his team are investigating a break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate office complex in Washington. It’s a case that Felt feels will have major repercussions, perhaps leading to the very top office in the land, President Nixon’s Oval Office.
His dreams of running the F.B.I. and breaking the explosive Watergate case are scuttled when Hoover’s job goes to an assistant attorney general from Nixon’s Justice Department, L. Pat Gray (Marton Csokas). “Hoover is gone,” Felt is told. “You’re alone now holding the end of your own leash.” Felt, once the second in command is now the odd man out. More than that, Gray wants the Watergate investigation shut down. “You are never going to find what you were looking for,” says Gray. “End it. Shut it down.”
Felt knows the burglars are all ex CIA and FBI with connections to the Committee to Re-Elect the President so rather than let it drop he turns to the press and becomes the most famous—and for a time anonymous—whistleblower in American political history.
“Mark Felt – The Man Who Brought Down the White House” is a timely look at the role of the FBI versus the White House. Much of Felt’s dialogue—lines like, “No one can stop the driving force of an FBI investigation. Not even the FBI.”—feel like they could have been lifted from James Comey’s Congressional testimony. The story predates Presidents Ford, Jimmy Carter, two Bushes, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama but feels ripped from today’s headlines.
Déjà vu aside, there isn’t much else here of interest. Neeson is the very model of a company man, someone who gave his life to the FBI only to see outside forces—i.e. Nixon’s White House—compromise the Bureau’s effectiveness. “We don’t answer to them,” he grunts. “The White House has no authority on the FBI.” It’s a compelling reason but Neeson is so stoic he’s barely a character and more a mound of finely sculpted grey hair with an attitude. As Felt he has a very particular set of skills. Skills he has acquired over a very long career. Skills that include stoicism. If you don’t give him what he wants he will hunt you down and tell you secrets.
A grafted on story about his missing, possibly radicalized daughter, does nothing to humanize the man who has spent a career as a cipher and only distracts from the intrigue.
“Mark Felt – The Man Who Brought Down the White House” is based on an explosive story and should be an engaging picture of the backrooms of power and the machinations that brought down a government. Instead it is a talky affair that relies on exposition rather than thrills.