Picture this: Washington, D.C., is ruled by a thin-skinned, paranoid megalomaniac. He is surrounded by a bunch of crooks and cronies, some of whom helped him cheat his way to the White House. His administration is also riven with leakers, and the cronies are tasked with identifying them and rooting them out. Meanwhile, an ambitious, fiercely patriotic FBI official identifies the administration as a singular threat to American democracy and takes it upon himself to bring it down. The balance of power has been upset—it must be restored.
Some movies are born relevant, some achieve relevance, but Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down The White House had relevance thrust upon it. The movie tells the story of the man who eleven years ago revealed to Vanity Fair that he was Deep Throat, the shadowy government informant at the center of the Watergate scandal that led to Richard Nixon’s fall. Starring Liam Neeson as the noble civil servant who set out to save the FBI from a corrupt White House, it could only have been more relevant if it dropped on the day ousted FBI Director James Comey testified before Congress.
That timeliness is accidental. Filmed last year, writer/director Peter Landesman could hardly have anticipated the similarities between his seedy, noir-ish take on Nixon-era Washington and the world we live in now. But Mark Felt’s inadvertent relevance is probably the most notable thing about this moody, clunky film that aspires to be Oscar bait, since it otherwise fails to offer much insight on why Watergate continues to resonate.
Mark Felt is supposed to be All The President’s Men from Deep Throat’s perspective, a movie that explains and is sympathetic to Felt’s motivations, actions, and controversial career. Landesman tries to walk a tricky line with Deep Throat’s origin story, reveling in the squalid atmosphere of 1970s Washington while recoiling from his hero’s unsavory qualities. Shortly after J. Edgar Hoover’s death, Felt is passed over for the top job at the agency, which he believed he had earned for his loyal service to both Hoover and the FBI. The gig goes to L. Patrick Gray, whose loyalties lie with Nixon first, the agency second.
The Watergate break-in happens two months after Hoover’s death. Felt, realizing that his beloved FBI is being compromised and that the president is a criminal, begins leaking all over town. What follows is a fairly conventional plot, enlivened only by Neeson’s decision to play Felt as a variant of the growling dad in Taken. The bad guys have taken over the FBI and our protagonist does everything in his power to take them down from the inside, without being detected. There are near-misses and inevitable meetings in parking garages, though Bob Woodward, played as a kind of pipsqueak by Julian Morris for some reason, barely factors into the proceedings. (Neither does Nixon, who doesn’t appear on-screen.) The focus is squarely on Felt and his mission to protect the integrity of the FBI.
Landesman doesn’t shy away from the darker sides of Felt’s story. We watch him order members of the FBI to break into the homes of suspected Weather Underground members. Felt’s complicated home life is another rich vein in his story. His career, which requires keeping secrets from loved ones and frequent moves, takes an enormous toll on his wife, played by Diane Lane. His daughter, meanwhile, is a runaway who cuts off all contact with her family and joins a commune.
There are a lot of things about Felt that are interesting, in other words. But Landesman’s script neutralizes them because they threaten his sanitized portrait of Felt as an ultimately noble and selfless whistleblower. Felt’s decision to bust the Weather Underground is justified because it protected his cover: He could either knock some hippie heads or take down Nixon, but not both. Felt’s family is similarly undercut by lazy cliches: the neglected housewife, the out-of-touch father, the hippie dropout whose folks just don’t get it, man.
Mark Felt also largely sidesteps the FBI’s abuses, both before and after Hoover. Landesman uses Tom Sizemore’s campy take on Bill Sullivan, who blackmailed Coretta Scott King, to personify the agency’s authoritarian overreach. In the film’s reductive take on things, Gray represents the influence of politicians on the FBI, Sullivan the FBI’s sordid past, and Felt all that is good and righteous about it.
If these choices allow Felt to represent what’s good about the FBI, they also make him a total drip, a vessel for inarticulate ideas about the value of independent institutions, checks and balances, and democracy. As a result the movie doesn’t really explore why it’s important to protect the FBI. It doesn’t really explain why a conservative, career G-man would take on all the president’s men. Worst of all, it struggles to find the significance of Watergate itself. In the real world, Watergate, along with the Vietnam War, were catalysts for the cynical, balkanized political environment we find ourselves in today. In Mark Felt, however, Watergate is significant because Mark Felt saved the FBI from politicians and crooks who were out to ruin it.
The one area where Mark Felt succeeds is mood. Whenever people stop speaking, it’s an effective film. Everything is in shadow; the movie, largely shot at night, is bathed in grays and blacks. The film’s villains are shot in such a way that they’re barely visible. This sooty version of Washington, D.C., is persuasive—Nixon may be absent from the proceedings, but the rot of the Nixon administration is everywhere. There’s normally nothing worse than b-roll of Washington, D.C.: the same boring monuments, the same dull drive down K Street. But in cinematographer Adam Kimmel’s hands, the city brims with dread.
Sadly, nothing in the script can measure up to this rich darkness. Mark Felt settles for a simplistic paradigm. There’s the good deep state, personified by Mark Felt, which is independent and sacrosanct and exists to protect people. And there’s the bad deep state, which is personified by the Nixon cronies who wish to use the levers of power for entirely personal reasons, as well as the other type of Hoover holdovers, who saw the FBI as a vehicle for tormenting people. The real Mark Felt straddled the line between these interpretations, but Mark Felt opts for a binary choice between them. What matters, you’re led to believe, is that the good deep state wins.
That ultimately may be the most resonant aspect of this shallow biopic. With many in the Resistance eager to lionize anyone who takes even a minor stand against Donald Trump, Mark Felt is an inadvertent argument in favor of more rigorous and demanding interpretations of history. It would certainly make for better movies, but it just might make for better politics, too.