Any student of history or person who’s seen or read “All the President’s Men” knows the gist of the story. Men were caught bugging the Watergate Hotel and it turned out they were working for Nixon. What followed was a massive unraveling of corruption in the Nixon campaign and White House. It’s a story with a cultural touchstone that has new angles every time you tell it. Yet, in the movie “Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House,” the angle they chose of the FBI investigation into Watergate has been rendered dull — in no small part by the clunky dialogue.
“I think I was the one who recommended you to the old man for your first big promotion,” said agent Bill Sullivan (Tom Sizemore) to Felt (Liam Neeson), “the G-man’s G-man!” Explaining character background is difficult, but there has to be a better way than this. Something less robotic than this.
“Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House” doesn’t know what the FBI is. For all of Associate Director Mark Felt’s blistering about the power of the institution and how it doesn’t answer to anyone, he seems completely trapped in the same selfish, bureaucratic career path as any politician. Felt, in this film, only adopted the role of “Deep Throat,” the whistleblower who exposed the Nixon administration’s various illegal activities, because he was passed over for a promotion. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; David Simon’s “The Wire” is a near perfect TV show about the conflict between ideology and personal advancement. But “Mark Felt” is no “Wire.” That’s OK though, because few things are. There is an interesting ethical issue in “Mark Felt,” one that the movie is content to gloss over.
There are many scenes here which feature men staring out of windows, men smoking cigarettes, but never seeming to inhale, men kissing their wives on the forehead and men getting angry enough to slap the desk but never use curse words. It feels like a rushed imitation of real life and real emotion, the way a TV movie does. The cinematography hopes to invoke film noir, with its deliberate use of window blinds and shadows. But even this wouldn’t help us become more invested in something the creators seem to barely care about. The actors seem bored, even a pro like Neeson doesn’t seem like he needs to be there; anyone could fill his shoes. He portrays Felt with the typical Neeson intensity, but for some reason, that makes the whole performance feel staged.
Of course, the more that we look at Felt, the less of a hero he seems. In the early 70s, he oversaw COINTELPRO, the FBI program designed to intimidate, discredit and disrupt American leftist groups (essentially anyone ranging from the weathermen to Martin Luther King). This program used many unconstitutional methods, and the film addresses Felt’s involvement almost as an afterthought, to set up a moment where he has to deny being Deep Throat. I’ve always thought COINTELPRO would make a good movie. Maybe we’ll see one where Felt actually has some moral complexity. But alas… depth on that level was not found in this one.