As a lifetime Federal Bureau of Investigation agent and No. 2 to J. Edgar Hoover, Mark Felt was not exactly an ordinary man, but he was, it seems, a highly unlikely candidate to topple a presidency. Felt was the man behind Deep Throat, the Watergate whistleblower who led Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein to the explosive truth behind that break-in. He lived only as a shadowy mystery in the popular imagination until he gave up his long-held secret in 2005, a few years before he died. By then what he represented had already transcended anything an actual human could live up to.
It’s not a surprise then that the fictionalized telling of his story in “Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House ” is a little underwhelming. The mundanities of the truth could hardly be as sexy as decades of intrigue and mythology enshrined in history and the enduring greatness of “All the President’s Men.” But director Peter Landesman (“Concussion”) and star Liam Neeson nonetheless manage to weave together a fairly compelling (if disputed ) tick-tock of how it all went down from Felt’s purview.
And it all started with a slight. We’re introduced to Felt in his ordinary suburban home, getting ready for another day of work at the Bureau. He’s a tall and soft-spoken man who hides the dirty secrets of the country, and his organization, behind a stoic poker face. A few characters at the outset tell him (read: us) how loyal and reliable and competent he is — a “golden retriever” for whomever is in power. When J. Edgar Hoover dies, Felt is passed over for that top position in favor of Nixon favorite L. Patrick Gray (Marton Csokas) — a mighty snub that sows the seed of discontentment in Felt.
A little over a month after Hoover’s death is when those five men are arrested for breaking into the Democratic National Committee headquarter in the Watergate complex. The peculiar facts of the case raise eyebrows at the FBI, but then the White House starts attempting to interfere with what should be an independent inquiry. So Felt takes it upon himself go another route — to the press.
As Felt, Neeson is understated and convincing despite his tendency to drift in and out of his native Irish accent. He’s also dealing with more than just executive office corruption. On the home front, his grown daughter has been missing for a year, which has put a strain on him and his wife, Audrey (Diane Lane). While it’s understandable why Landesman has included this background, it also feels very tacked on and insufficiently explored to have much of an impact. At the very least, it could have been cut for length.
The film is at its best when it is dealing with the central story, which can also at times feel like a bit of a repetitive slog. Felt’s fellow agents are not much more than suits, distinguishable only by the fact that they’re portrayed by recognizable actors (Josh Lucas, Tony Goldwyn, Ike Barinholtz, Brian d’Arcy James) and while the day-to-day of what was happening at the FBI is a compelling slice of history, as a film it can feel a little dry.
Largely absent from the story are those two central media figures, Woodward and Bernstein. They are there in spirit, and in print, and Woodward (Julian Morris) gets a brief moment as a nervous and confused young thing meeting with Felt in an empty garage providing a sort of cinematic referendum on the story as told from their point of view. Although stylistically, Landesman has clearly subscribed to the muted colors and mood set by Alan J. Pakula and Gordon Willis in “All the President’s Men.”
The shadow of that film is a handicap, but more so, “Mark Felt” the movie just never rises to the level of its own story.
“Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House,” a Sony Pictures Classics release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for “some language.” Running time: 103 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.
MPAA Definition of PG-13: Parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.
Follow AP Film Writer Lindsey Bahr on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ldbahr