In “Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House,” Liam Neeson delivers a still, almost marmoreal performance as the anonymous source who came to be known as Deep Throat during the Watergate era, and who kept his identity a secret until 2005, when he revealed himself in Vanity Fair magazine.
Felt, deputy associate director at the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover, had long been a contender in the Washington parlor game of speculation as to Deep Throat’s true identity. An ambitious and practiced bureaucratic knife fighter, he was reportedly incensed when he didn’t get the top job at the bureau when Hoover died, in 1972.
The Watergate break-in occurred just six weeks later, putting Felt squarely in the middle of a fast-moving criminal investigation, an almost Oedipal drama of succession at an organization he considered his home and existential threats to that organization from a vindictive and paranoid White House.
Writer-director Peter Landesman (“Parkland,” “Concussion”) puts those elements into play with direct, if unimaginative, efficiency in “Mark Felt,” which focuses on the title character’s psychological and emotional motives for becoming the most famous leaker of the 20th century.
The pallid gray of his skin melting into a mane of similarly colorless hair, Neeson cuts an eerie, ghostlike figure, his very presence infusing suspense and dynamism into what is essentially a portrait of a man thinking about his next move.
Although bare-knuckled careerism was doubtlessly part of Felt’s mental machinations, Landesman prefers to see Felt as a hero — a paragon of institutional memory, personal ethics and self-sacrifice.
“Mark Felt” presents an absorbing alternate view to a story that most Americans know from the 1976 thriller “All the President’s Men.” Tony Goldwyn, Brian D’Arcy James and Josh Lucas do their best as Felt’s dogged associates, with Lucas delivering an especially amusing turn as a loyal minion who slowly realizes his boss might be a mole.
As usual, Diane Lane is graceful and sympathetic as Felt’s emotionally fragile wife, Audrey, with whom he is coping with a runaway teenage daughter. That domestic subplot figures into the motivations that drive “Mark Felt.” Landesman clearly saw Felt’s complicated home life as a way to humanize a man whose contradictions are mostly left to the audience to tease out and contemplate, especially when he authorizes illegal surveillance of leftist activists, an act that will have its own Shakespearean ramifications.
Through it all, Felt himself is so steadfastly opaque that the audience feels more distant from him at the end of the film than at the beginning. As alternate history and a showcase for a fine Neeson characterization, “Mark Felt” offers an intriguing, if incomplete, view of a man who remains inscrutable, 40 years after the fact.
‘Mark Felt — The Man Who Brought Down the White House’
Rating: PG-13 (for some obscenity)
Cast: Liam Neeson, Diane Lane, Marton Csokas, Tony Goldwyn, Michael C. Hall, Julian Morris
Director: Peter Landesman
Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes
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