Review by Jacquelin Hipes
There have been American political scandals as long as there have been officials serving in American political offices. In today’s climate of twenty-four hour news and instant access to information, any misstep by a public servant gets billed as the next calamity. Out of the countless lies and mistakes accrued over the last two hundred-odd years (more than) a few scandals distinguish themselves, with Richard Nixon’s Watergate debacle looming as one of the largest of all. Watergate cemented the journalistic careers of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein and led to the resignation of a president, its unraveling requiring an effort that spanned more than two years and included the contributions of numerous players.
The identity of one key informant—dubbed “Deep Throat” by Washington Post reporters Woodward and Bernstein—remained a mystery until, three years before his death in 2008, Mark Felt admitted to his role in revealing the conspiracy. Serving as deputy director of the FBI at the time of the Watergate break-in, he leaked information about the Bureau’s investigation to the Post, Time, and other publications. Based on Felt’s own writings, the film portrays him as a man loyal to the Bureau as both an organization and an ideal. He possesses an encyclopedic knowledge that mirrors Hoover’s penchant for secret-gathering and pursues the truth behind the Watergate break-in with a relentlessness in no way connected to the jockeying for position that came after J. Edgar’s death. According to Mark Felt, at least, Mark Felt was the consummate lawman.
Mark Felt divides its attention between the political and bureaucratic machinations of the Watergate scandal and the personal life of its subject (played by Liam Neeson), focusing heavily on the former. Mr. Felt serves as the spider to the investigation’s web, not just a key player— the key player. It’s a simplification that detracts from, rather than enriches, the story. The scenes concerned with Watergate unfold like a knock-off John Le Carré spy story and as the leading man Mr. Neeson plays up his reliably gravelly voice and glowering stares to great effect. He manages to make threats sound complimentary, a lingering reminder of Hoover’s vast influence. Yet too often it feels as though writer/director Peter Landesman is just going through the paces; he knows the story and so does his audience, which apparently absolves him of an effort to present the material in a thrilling way. Stylistically, with its antiseptic cyan tones and quietly thrumming score by Daniel Pemberton, Mark Felt leans heavily on a House of Cards vibe to establish tension.
The scattered scenes revolving around Felt’s personal life only exacerbate the anemia. When the story begins his daughter Joan (Maika Monroe) has been absent for a year, living in a commune that may or may not have ties to the militant Weather Underground organization. This causes both he and his wife (Diane Lane) anguish, but with so little time spent on the Felt family dynamics each new development in his search for Joan feels more like a distraction than additional depth. To their credit, Ms. Lane and Ms. Monroe both acquit themselves well considering the dearth of material.
Mark Felt was an important piece in a very large puzzle and his is a compelling story not accessible at the time of Alan Pakula’s All the President’s Men. Yet to hone in so finely on his role while ignoring the greater context in which it existed ultimately diminishes the sprawling tale of Watergate. Mark Felt unwisely divides its attention between the scandal that catapulted him to anonymous fame and the personal life that humanized a devoted Bureau agent. It would have done better to choose one and leave the audience with some future food for thought.