------------- -------------- ------------------- -------------------
Friday , December 6 2019

‘Felt’ looks at man behind Deep Throat – Landesman’s film prompts questions of Watergate whistleblower

As a lifetime Federal Bureau of Investigation agent and No. 2 to J. Edgar Hoover, Mark Felt was not exactly an ordinary man, but he was, it seems, a highly unlikely candidate to topple a presidency. Felt was the man behind Deep Throat, the Watergate whistleblower who led Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein to the explosive truth behind that break-in. He lived only as a shadowy mystery in the popular imagination until he gave up his long-held secret in 2005, a few years before he died. By then what he represented had already transcended anything an actual human could live up to.

It’s not a surprise then that the fictionalized telling of his story in “Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House” is a little underwhelming. The mundanities of the truth could hardly be as sexy as decades of intrigue and mythology enshrined in history and the enduring greatness of “All the President’s Men”. But director Peter Landesman (“Concussion”) and star Liam Neeson nonetheless manage to weave together a fairly compelling (if disputed ) tick-tock of how it all went down from Felt’s purview.

And it all started with a slight. We’re introduced to Felt in his ordinary suburban home, getting ready for another day of work at the Bureau. He’s a tall and soft-spoken man who hides the dirty secrets of the country, and his organization, behind a stoic poker face. A few characters at the outset tell him (read: us) how loyal and reliable and competent he is — a “golden retriever” for whomever is in power. When J. Edgar Hoover dies, Felt is passed over for that top position in favor of Nixon favorite L. Patrick Gray (Marton Csokas) — a mighty snub that sows the seed of discontentment in Felt.

A little over a month after Hoover’s death is when those five men are arrested for breaking into the Democratic National Committee headquarter in the Watergate complex. The peculiar facts of the case raise eyebrows at the FBI, but then the White House starts attempting to interfere with what should be an independent inquiry. So Felt takes it upon himself go another route — to the press.

As Felt, Neeson is understated and convincing despite his tendency to drift in and out of his native Irish accent. He’s also dealing with more than just executive office corruption. On the home front, his grown daughter has been missing for a year, which has put a strain on him and his wife, Audrey (Diane Lane). While it’s understandable why Landesman has included this background, it also feels very tacked on and insufficiently explored to have much of an impact. At the very least, it could have been cut for length.

The film is at its best when it is dealing with the central story, which can also at times feel like a bit of a repetitive slog. Felt’s fellow agents are not much more than suits, distinguishable only by the fact that they’re portrayed by recognizable actors (Josh Lucas, Tony Goldwyn, Ike Barinholtz, Brian d’Arcy James) and while the day-to-day of what was happening at the FBI is a compelling slice of history, as a film it can feel a little dry.

Confused

Largely absent from the story are those two central media figures, Woodward and Bernstein. They are there in spirit, and in print, and Woodward (Julian Morris) gets a brief moment as a nervous and confused young thing meeting with Felt in an empty garage providing a sort of cinematic referendum on the story as told from their point of view. Although stylistically, Landesman has clearly subscribed to the muted colors and mood set by Alan J. Pakula and Gordon Willis in “All the President’s Men”.

The shadow of that film is a handicap, but more so, “Mark Felt” the movie just never rises to the level of its own story.

“Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House”, a Sony Pictures Classics release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for “some language”. Running time: 103 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.

More than four decades after Hal Holbrook stood smoking in a darkened parking lot, urging Robert Redford’s Bob Woodward to “follow the money”, the famed Watergate source “Deep Throat” is, in cinematic terms, finally stepping out of the shadows.

“Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House” is a kind of bookend to Alan J. Pakula 1976 masterpiece “All the President’s Men” that gives a belated big-screen close-up to the man who was — until he revealed himself in 2005 as the Washington Post’s famous source — shrouded in mystery.

But whether “Mark Felt” adds clarity to the legend of Watergate or further mythologizes it is up for debate. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the famed journalists whose reporting earned the Washington Post a Pulitzer Prize, say Peter Landesman’s film overstates the importance of Felt in untangling Watergate, portraying him as a puppet master pulling the strings that would, as the subtitle asserts, topple Richard Nixon.

“Felt played a role, at times a courageous one,” Woodward told The Associated Press. “But this portrait of him as ‘the man who brought down the White House’ just isn’t accurate.”

Woodward and Bernstein voiced their concerns with Landesman in an email to the filmmaker last October that they shared with The Associated Press. They implored Landesman to drop the subtitle, calling it “demonstrably false”.

In the letter, they maintained that Nixon’s fall was “the work of many” — contributors they listed as ranging from Frank Wells, the Watergate office security guard who discovered the break in, to the Supreme Court, which unanimously ruled that Nixon had to turn over his tapes. “Mark Felt was only one of several dozen sources we used,” they wrote.

“Let the story speak for itself,” they concluded. “A hyped effort to make it more will fail and do yourselves and Mark Felt a grave disservice.” (AP)

It’s far from the first time the facts surrounding Watergate have been contested. Woodward and Bernstein have played their own part in growing the legend around their landmark journalism and the aura around the source they nicknamed. Their 1974 book, “All the President’s Men,” recounted their extraordinarily methodical, step-by-step reporting. The resulting film, starring Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, stayed close to the truth but it added some dramatic flourishes. The now-famous line “follow the money”, for example, was an invention of screenwriter William Goldman.

In response to Woodward and Bernstein’s comments, Landesman — a former investigative journalist, himself, whose previous film was the 2015 docudrama “Concussion”, with Will Smith — suggested there were parallels between the approaches of the two films.

“This film sees Watergate through the keyhole of Felt’s experience as the man leading the FBI investigation into the White House’s cover-up, just as ‘All the President’s Men’ saw Watergate through the keyhole of Woodward and Bernstein’s experience,” Landesman said in a statement to the AP.

In an earlier interview about the film, Landesman boasted of the film’s accuracy — particularly in a parking garage meeting between Woodward and Felt — in comparison to “All the President’s Men”. Landesman added that Pakula’s film is one of his favorites.

“It’s a much fuller representation of what really happened that night than what’s in ‘All the President’s Men,’” said Landesman. “There’s a lot of that film that was the creation and the poetic dramatization of Bill Goldman, more than was factually accurate. My ambition was to make this movie the more iconically accurate version of events.”

Landesman’s commitment to accuracy has been questioned before. Citing emails leaked in the hack of Sony Pictures, The New York Times reported that “Concussion” was altered to soften its criticism of the NFL. Many disputed that page-one report, though, on the basis of the still hard-hitting finished film. Landesman vigorously denied the claims and calls the Times report “a hit piece” that damaged the movie.

A 2004 cover story of Landesman’s for the New York Times Magazine about sex trafficking in the US, also came under scrutiny for allegedly exaggerating the scope of domestic sex trafficking. The veteran media critic Jack Shafer penned numerous columns for Slate questioning the story, including one titled “Doubting Landesman”, to which Landesman wrote several responses defending his article.

Landesman recently told the New Yorker that Woodward and Bernstein “loved” the film. (AP)

By Lindsey Bahr

Translate »