In “Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House,” we have a film that is culturally significant but at best decently made. It’s an account of crime and stonewalling denials from the Nixon presidency during the Watergate investigation and the secretive whistle-blowing by Felt, an assistant director at the FBI handling the investigation.
Liam Neeson is pitch-perfect as Felt. The character is efficiently sketched in the opening sequence, performing the morning rituals in his tidy suburban house. By the time he heads to work in his dark suit, white shirt and muted tie, we recognize him as a formal man in control of life’s details.
As second in command at the FBI, Felt was the logical successor following the 1972 death of director J. Edgar Hoover. Instead, Nixon nominated L. Patrick Gray III, a longtime loyalist. The film shows that decision as a blow to Felt and a key element in what’s to follow.
Determined to build pressure against an administration trying to manipulate his agency for partisan reasons, Felt anonymously feeds information to the news media, which labels him Deep Throat. Using instincts accumulated over a lifetime of intelligence work, he knows exactly when to glance over his shoulder when making a clandestine call from a phone booth on a rainy night.
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This return to an earlier era of Washington scandal will be an exercise in nostalgia for some viewers, a revelation to others and a cautionary tale to many. But few will find it deeply moving on a human level. Writer/director Peter Landesman tries to present Felt as a fascinating figure, but his less-than-compelling personal life offers few opportunities.
It’s hard to see this film in isolation from its magnificent predecessor “All the President’s Men,” which told the tale from the viewpoints of Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. “Mark Felt” mimics some of the earlier film’s scenes and dour mood, but it never equals the original. This is a fact-rich but drama-poor film, constructed with professionalism but lacking passion.
‘Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House’
Rated PG-13 for some language.