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.