TIFF FILM REVIEW: MARK FELT May Have Brought Down The White House, But He Will Not Rock The Movie Theater
Felt, the movie about the secret Washington Post informer once known primarily as Depp Throat, recently changed—nay, expanded—its name to Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House. The modification of a title, however, a transparent attempt to sensationalize its subject matter to appeal to the prurient political interest of the day, is insufficient to make up for the shortcomings in the balance of the film. You would think, in fact, that a movie about a somewhat rogue FBI agent resisting a corrupt White House to the point of leaking it to its demise would be a hot topic in the age of the scandal-ridden White House. Instead, the film is an example of what not to do when Hollywood ventures into waters that are clearly above its head.
Liam Neeson, who has made a name for himself as a revenge action film star, plays the titular Mark Felt, a straight-laced, principled FBI agent who is coping with the difficult transition from the days of J. Edgar to the Nixon administration. Not only is he coping, he is pining—for the FBI directorship seems firmly within his grasp. But Felt does not have the correct connections and lacks the requisite bendable scruples to be what Tricky Dick wants for his top cops, sidelining him for more loyal elements.
Then, the fated break-in at the Watergate hotel happens and Felt is set on a dangerous investigation that will test his mettle, his willpower, and his resolve. It will pit him against White House enemies—Michael C. Hall, John Dean, White House Counsel—rivals at the FBI including, Tom Goldwyn and Josh Lucas as Ed Miller and Charlie Bates respectively, and even rival investigators at the CIA. He has the support of his wife, Diane Lane as Audrey, but ultimately circumstances and the intractable corruptness of the commander in chief serves him up into the arms of Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward, Julian Morris, and the rest, as they say, is history.
It is a who’s who for political junkies, a veritable web of lies and intrigues that has all the makings of an exciting thriller but otherwise ends up being a dud in the hands of Peter Landesman, who had similarly produced middling results in adapting real life dramatic events with films like Will Smith’s Concussion.
Little of substance is offered to explain Felt’s unshakable moral character, and few explanations are given beyond “they must be corrupt” for the baddies’ motivations. It is almost as if we were expected to think of them in the simplistic, uni-dimensional ways one thinks of Liam’s revenge cops and their clichéd baddies: they are who they are just because, and in Felt it is the same way but with fewer gunshots and more three piece shoots.
To make matters worse, Felt repeatedly falls into the same traps that half-baked suspense dramas do, including the fracturing relationship with the wife, the self-doubt, the moments of close capitulation to the dark side. The relationship with Woodward, by contrast, is given almost the silent treatment and little heft, and the actual steps that Felt took that eventually resulted in the advertised take-down. Indeed, one of the reasons the 1970s movie All The President’s Men worked so well that the plot, intricate and complex as it was, built on itself, step by step and block by block, so that you followed—if you didn’t stop paying attention—the convoluted conspiracies of Nixon, his White House cronies, and the investigation that brought him down. It never shied away from difficult explanations nor oversimplified the knotty relationships that formed the building block. To the contrary, it was relentless in dialogue, thick in explanation, and committed to setting it all out in its gory detail.
Felt, distrustful of its audience and perhaps of itself, foregoes all of the foregoing. Instead, it asks you to simply accept that the good guys are good, that the bad guys are bad, and that the White House is corrupt just because we know it was. The actual obscurity of the plot—in fact, the stuff that good old Hollywood scripts were made of—is cast aside for one-liner niceties.
I do realize that this is the age of the 140 character retort, of the shortened explanation. But in the age of oversized politics, in which even facts are distrusted, is one really going to feel compelled, moved, or even interested, by a movie that sensationalizes rather than demonstrate? I suppose the ultimate point may be to find ultimate morbidity in it like a spy-thriller, but to extract from it actually interesting political intrigue, is too much to ask.
Too bad, because Neeson gives it his best, the supporting cast of Lane, Lucas, and Hall, all do the most with the unforgiving script, and the entire subject matter is inherently fascinating. One may enjoy the movie then, in that context, and see it for that alone. But while Deep Throat may have, all those years ago, changed the course of American political history, Mark Felt and his bloated film title will make nary a dent in the history of our cinema.