In the sagging docudrama Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House, Liam Neeson plays the title character – the man at the center of modern American history’s most compelling mystery. The Washington Post source known as Deep Throat was responsible for keeping the Watergate scandal alive until it dethroned Richard Nixon from the presidency. Deep Throat’s identity remained secret for thirty years. It turned out to be Mark Felt, the number two official at the FBI.
Think about it – this was one of the most compelling people in America for thirty years. Deep Throat was clearly one of a handful of men so well-positioned at the center of government power that we would know him, but no one could finger him. The intrigue was brilliantly captured in All the President’s Men, in which Hal Holbrook played Deep Throat.
In Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House, Neeson plays Felt as a stolid, principled and crafty bureaucratic survivor. Somehow the character just isn’t that personally interesting. The story attempts to flesh him out with a troubled wife (Diane Lane, always superb, even in this thankless role) and a runaway hippie daughter.
As we watch Mark Felt, it gradually becomes apparent that this is a one-note character in a one-note movie. The leaden, pseudo-dramatic soundtrack doesn’t help. Mark Felt also fumbles the chance to get some spark out of Watergate icons John Dean, John Erlichman and John Mitchell. The real-life mystery is so much more interesting than this movie. The movie may be irresistible to Watergate buffs like me, but probably should be resisted.
Mark Felt was directed by Peter Landesman, who recently made the near-masterpiece Parkland. Parkland explores the JFK assassination from the viewpoints of the secondary participants. Mark Felt, however, is not a work of directorial mastery.
Marton Csokas is excellent as weak-willed and overmatched FBI Director L. Patrick Gray. Nixon handpicked Gray to be his stooge only to leave Gray, as henchman John Erlichman indelibly described, to “twist slowly, slowly in the wind”.
In Loving, Csokas, with pitiless, piercing eyes, was remarkably effective as the Virginia sheriff dead set on enforcing Virginia’s racist statute in the most personally intrusive way. Too often, actors seem to be impersonating Rod Steiger in In the Heat of the Night when they play racist Southern sheriffs, but Csokas brought originality to that performance. Here Csokas is able to portray a man of ability and ambition, but not spine.
The great but personally turbulent actor Tom Sizemore showcases his talent once again in the film’s most showy role, a bitter and cynic relic of the FBI’s most sordid skullduggery. Sizemore brings a magnetic cocktail of menace and humor to the role. Besides Diane Lane, the always welcome Bruce Greenwood and Eddie Marsan show up in minor roles.
Perhaps needless to say, Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House has made my list of Longest Movie Title.