Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House: All the Bureau’s Men, by David Bax
It’s likely that the first thing you’ll notice about Peter Landesman’s Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House is its cast. It’s like someone threw a party for every famous white male character actor over 40 and a movie broke out. Yet, while the overstuffed roster of distinguished faces sometimes becomes comic (Did we really need those couple of lines to be spoken by a never seen again Eddie Marsan? And was that Noah Wyle just then?), it’s largely to the credit of the actors and actresses that the film works even to the extent that it does. Sometimes we take good acting for granted but when Liam Neeson and Michael C. Hall are able to fill a room with tension just by looking at each other, their power does not go unnoticed.
If you want a clue as to what Landesman’s movie is like, just look at the title. It’s dreary and exhaustingly literal. Mark Felt (Neeson) was the associate director of the FBI as well as the anonymous source known as Deep Throat who led two Washington Post reporters to the information that would eventually result in President Nixon’s resignation. Mark Felt covers the time roughly from the death of J. Edgar Hoover (and subsequent appointment of L. Patrick Gray, whom Nixon trusted, as Acting Director of the FBI) to the president’s departure. The screenplay boils down to a tick-tock of the events that led from one point to the other, leaving the actors to fill in anything interesting in the margins.
Like pretty much all political thrillers, especially those set in Washington, D.C., Mark Felt’s color palette is slate gray and blue steel. Talented cinematographer Adam Kimmel (Jesus’ Son, Capote) is occasionally able to tweak the formula into something expressionistic; the wintry hues suggest that Felt, trying to remain true to his values in a Bureau he no longer recognizes, is out in the cold.
Like All the President’s Men, Mark Felt avoids the distraction of casting an actor as Nixon by not making him a character, letting us glimpse him only by a sparse use of stock footage. That’s not the only reference to Alan J. Pakula’s classic film, either. You’ll be tempted to laugh out loud when Felt meets Bob Woodward in a parking garage and makes no attempt whatsoever to hide his face. Fun though it may be to see All the President’s Men retold from another vantage point, it’s a fleeting pleasure. But at least it’s a strong argument for the importance of anonymous sources to journalism.
Truthfully, Mark Felt’s most important aspect might be its relevance to current events. “The White House has no authority over the FBI” would be an important line of dialogue in this story no matter when it was told but today it rings out forcefully. Robert Mueller should screen this film for his team if he ever needs to galvanize them.
With the exception of a thin handful of scenes between Felt and his wife (Diane Lane), Landesman hardly even attempts to illustrate Felt’s interior motivations. Neeson plays the ambivalence but that element of the story has trouble taking root. Far more interesting is the toll that Felt’s secret-keeping takes on other agents (Josh Lucas, Brian d’Arcy James, Ike Barinholtz), all of whom are suspected of being the informant and some of whom get transferred halfway across the country because of it. As for Felt, he mostly just seems to get wearier as the ordeal drags on. Unfortunately, so does the movie.