Sony Pictures Classics

Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House is a film about the Watergate scandal. You’ve heard about this affair before—it was a fairly major political to-do in the ’70s, a wide-reaching conspiracy of dirty tricks and abuse of power that eventually brought about the resignation of President Richard Nixon. But the scandal is news to the real-life characters that make up the ensemble of Mark Felt, a muted thriller that takes place within the FBI and follows the exploits of the man who would later be revealed as The Washington Post’s crucial secret source, “Deep Throat.”

This is the kind of movie where every time a new character walks on screen, someone else introduces him with his full name and title, information that would already be obvious to everyone but the audience. It’s the sort of film where people ask, “How high? How high does this go?” about the Watergate intrigue. Written and directed by Peter Landesman, the journalist behind similarly sober true-story dramas like Parkland and Concussion, Mark Felt is told with sincerity and even-handedness, slowly laying out the facts of Felt’s transformation from consummate G-man to legendary informant. But the film has all the subtlety of a term paper, even if the earliest scenes suggest otherwise.

Landesman (who, in his journalistic career, has written for The Atlantic) scored a coup in casting Liam Neeson, a cinderblock of a movie star with a voice that’s at once sonorous and gruff, in the title role. Felt is the ideal enforcer, a deputy to the much feared FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, who helped build the agency into a fiercely independent fiefdom that hoards gossip about every influence-peddler in Washington. The film begins with the death of Hoover (who’s spoken of, but unseen), which leaves a power vacuum President Nixon (also unseen) struggles to leap into. Meanwhile, Felt is tasked with hiding and destroying much of the incriminating evidence Hoover had surreptitiously gathered over the years.

There’s a familiar, but still enjoyable, air of paranoia to the first act of the movie, which involves smoke-filled rooms and mysterious filing cabinets, with Felt barking cryptic orders and Hoover’s secretary shredding papers with aplomb. I always prefer ’70s political thrillers that emphasize the atmosphere of total distrust in government, and Mark Felt is pretty plain from the start about the institutional rot of the moment. Felt, long tipped to succeed his boss, is pushed aside for a nakedly political appointee—L. Patrick Gray (Marton Csokas), an assistant attorney general from Nixon’s Justice Department.

Shortly thereafter, the Watergate break-in occurs, and that’s when Mark Felt shifts into much more standard biographical territory. Felt oversees the FBI investigation into the break-in, which seems connected to Nixon’s 1972 reelection campaign, but Gray warns him against digging too deep and eventually issues an ultimatum that the FBI wrap up the case quickly. Felt, whom Neeson plays mostly via a series of grumpy squints and barely perceptible nose-twitches, begins to suspect something much darker could be afoot, going far beyond a botched attempt to bug the Democratic Party’s election headquarters. Could the Watergate scandal go ... all the way up to the president himself?

Well, yes, of course it could, and Mark Felt spends too much time on the well-worn particulars of its subject’s involvement in the case. We mostly see Felt passing information to the Post’s Bob Woodward (played by a doe-eyed Julian Morris) and Time’s Sandy Smith (Bruce Greenwood), while at the same time quietly pushing his fellow FBI agents to keep digging. There’s some threat that Felt’s double-agent tactics will be exposed, but it’s hard to get invested, given that “Deep Throat” famously remained anonymous for so many years. Landesman does everything he can to avoid comparisons to All the President’s Men, mostly keeping the journalists’ work off-screen. But the surreptitious cover-ups being orchestrated by Nixon aides like John Dean (Michael C. Hall) are just as uninteresting as Felt’s subterfuge, given that viewers know exactly what they’re up to.

Landesman is obviously aware of the parallels some viewers will be drawing to the present day, given that the politicization of the FBI has become a fresh issue during the Trump administration. But in trying to find new resonance, Mark Felt comes across the most lamely, with Felt delivering robust speeches about the agency’s crucial independence and his resolute distaste for Nixon’s interference. It feels as annoyingly on-the-nose as Will Smith’s exhortations that the NFL “tell the truth!” in Concussion, and strangely lionizes Felt after earlier showing that he had helped Hoover operate extralegally for years.

There’s some effort to shade in Felt’s character by acknowledging his approval of warrantless break-ins to root out members of the Weather Underground and other suspected radical groups. But Landesman connects this attitude to Felt’s daughter Joan, who runs away from home and lives on a commune for a while, apparently stirring up Felt’s hatred for radical lefties. It’s too clean of an explanation, and fits poorly with the main Watergate plot, forcing the movie to awkwardly cut back and forth between storylines. Diane Lane, who plays Felt’s wife Audrey, does what she can with the little material she’s given (the film paints her as a fairly heartless, cold mother responsible for her daughter absconding).

In the end, Mark Felt winds up exactly where such true-story dramas often do: with a series of post-scripts projected on a black screen, explaining the legacy of the man whom Landesman has already spent 105 minutes explaining the legacy of. Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House is saved from feeling like a History Channel movie of the week by Neeson, who can’t shake his inherent gravitas no matter how mediocre the script he’s given. But the rest of it is Watergate-by-numbers, regardless of how newly relevant that scandal may feel.

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