Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House tells the entire story in the title.
That’s harsh, but it answers the central question of any movie review: “Is this a movie worth spending my time on?” And it’s rare that a movie feels like such a resounding “not really,” which is a shame because, when taken in disparate parts, Mark Felt has a hell of a résumé.
Liam Neeson plays the title character and he’s full-on Liam Neeson, operating at the dramatic level you can expect from him in any role. The supporting cast is populated by notable character actors: Diane Lane as Felt’s wife, Audrey; Marton Csokas as rival FBI leader L. Patrick Gray; and Michael C. Hall as John Dean. None of them is given much to do.
Each is chronically underserved by Peter Landesman’s script and direction, which starts the movie from the first second with all the grim, shadowy intensity you’d expect from a conspiracy movie but without a mystery to drive the story. Nobody really changes. Nothing surprises. It’s all perfunctory. When playing with well-known history, it can be hard to find a unique angle, and Felt tries but fails.
If you’re unaware, Felt is the true identity of Deep Throat, the FBI informant whose information helped bring down the Nixon White House. His identity was unknown for three decades until he finally came out in 2005, three years before his death. As an FBI company man, Felt also was responsible for greenlighting numerous extrajudicial raids on left-wing political organizations during the 1970s, a crime he actually was convicted for before a later pardon from President Ronald Reagan.
Felt’s interesting; it’s questionable whether his motives for acting as Deep Throat came from a place of patriotism or blunt careerism within the FBI when he was passed up for a promotion after the death of founding FBI head J. Edgar Hoover in 1972. Mark Felt explores both, but ultimately settles with the much more humanizing “good man” motivation.
This means that Felt’s more controversial decisions lack narrative weight. It’s a character piece shot like a political thriller, which means too many characters in hushed tones and too little time spent with Felt as a professional before Watergate broke. There are plenty of fascinating stories to tell about the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover, and there are probably plenty of choices Felt made before the 1970s that would give his character even more controversy. But we know him as Deep Throat going into the film, and he’s pretty much immediately Deep Throat as soon as the movie starts. There’s just something missing here.
Deep Throat is a mythological figure in American history — a man whose role in our greatest near-miss means any story told about him is always going to be, in some form, redemptive. Felt was a complex man, and a story about his complexities could stand to be a little more enthralling. Felt ends up flat. It’s a shame. Neeson’s great, Landesman has made great films and the rest of the cast is packed. File this one under “forgettable,” sadly.