Mark Felt (Liam Neeson) was a man full of secrets. For 30 years, he was the right-hand man to J. Edgar Hoover, and for 30 more he kept his identity as Deep Throat tightly under wraps. As a man who came within a hair’s breadth of running the F.B.I., his fierce loyalty was matched only by his brutal ambition. And for all the drama inherent in Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s investigative reporting of Watergate, as evidenced by All the President’s Men, there’s at least as much intrigue tucked away in the life of the man who buried, or rather shredded, Hoover’s secret files and later helped to take down Nixon’s administration. But Peter Landesman’s Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House is the sort of well-intentioned yet safe, lifeless biopic that remains content to merely skim the surface of personal and political history as it charts little more than the obligatory greatest hits of the Watergate investigation and attempts to round out Felt’s character with undercooked filler about his runaway daughter.
Given the film’s subtitle, it comes as no surprise that Landesman treats Felt as a noble whistle-blower who felt compelled to stop what he saw as the Nixon administration’s overstepping its constitutionally prescribed role. And Neeson plays him as such: a stoic, honorable man struggling to do the right thing and keep the Watergate investigation afloat in the face of repeated attempts from the White House and its lackey, L. Patrick Gray (Marton Csokas), acting director of the F.B.I., to squash further inquiries. But Landesman’s film leaves Felt’s underlying motives for his leaking of confidential information to the media mostly unexplored. Rather than delve into the man’s fears that the F.B.I. would lose its complete sovereignty over the federal government or his deep-seated bitterness at being passed over for the director position upon Hoover’s death, the filmmaker breezes past these complex emotions to instead present a man of conviction simply standing up for what’s right.
Mark Felt is a kind of hagiography, and it leans toward whitewashing its subject’s legacy, which extends even to the man’s illegal break-ins and wire-tapping of the leftist activist group the Weather Underground. By positioning Felt as a worried father seeking to protect his radicalized daughter, Joan (Maika Monroe), who may have had ties to the militant organization, the film underplays his role in repeatedly breaking the laws he supposedly held sacrosanct. The ridiculous depiction of Bill Sullivan (Tom Sizemore) similarly seeks to assuage any lingering doubts that the audience may have regarding Felt’s honorability. His rival is presented as an irredeemable, vengeful snake—a villain upon which the more appalling deeds of Hoover’s F.B.I., particularly the tapping of Martin Luther King Jr.’s phones, can be blamed on.
Landesman’s glorification of Felt is even further magnified by his cursory representation of history, as characters are prone to discussing personal and historical events in the broadest of terms, often through the awkward delivery of exposition. Rather than exploring Felt’s anxieties over disclosing F.B.I. secrets, the film has Time magazine reporter Sandy Smith (Bruce Greenwood) repeatedly vocalize them, remarking on just how challenging it must be for Felt to finally speak the truth. And we learn of Felt’s marital struggles and familial sacrifices through his wife Audrey’s (Diane Lane) outburst when she complains about all the times they’ve picked up and moved for the F.B.I.
In spite of Mark Felt’s abundant speechifying, the specifics of the Watergate scandal are still left frustratingly murky. Landesman’s preference to focus on characters moodily posturing in reaction to the Watergate case’s breakthroughs rather than mine the specifics of the actual crimes being investigated is emblematic of the film’s failure. The director’s seeming assumption of our familiarity with this scandal would be less of an issue were the psychological or philosophical complexities of the characters articulated with more precision or depth. Like its protagonist, Mark Felt plays it close to the vest, failing to shed much light in the closet where all those skeletons lie.