The biggest presidential scandal in United States history is the cause of one man who would later be referred to as ‘Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House’. The latest project that is written and directed by Peter Landesman centers on “Deep Throat,” the pseudonym given to the notorious whistleblower for one of the greatest scandals of all time, Watergate. The true identity of the secret informant remained a cryptic mystery and source of much public curiosity and speculation for more than 30 years. That is until, in 2005, special agent Mark Felt (Liam Neeson) shockingly revealed himself as the shadow figure. This unbelievable true story chronicles the personal and professional life of the brilliant and uncompromising Felt, who risked and ultimately sacrificed everything; his family, his career, and his freedom in the name of justice. The film is currently not rated, but does have some adult language.
There’s a saying in life that rings ever so true with this film, and it states that “When the cat’s away, the mice will play”. ‘Mark Felt’ depicts that theory to a tee, revealing the level of uncertainty and panic that swept over Washington from the days after Herbert Hoover’s death, to the days leading up to the next presidential election that saw Richard Nixon take the helm as commander in chief. What Landseman does as an expert storyteller is channel this level of paranoia that has swept over everyone in and out of our nation’s capital, and gives it legs to prove just how far a breach in the system can level everyone within striking distance. This alone should be enough in relaying the facts and conjuring up an edge-of-the-seat story that should have us hanging on its every word. So what’s the problem? For a political thriller about deceit, the film lacks the kind of intrigue needed as a result of elevating the tension from what is at stake here, and ultimately settles for being one of the biggest ball drops of 2017 from what should’ve been a must-see main event for anyone thirsty for the details that we as everyday citizens aren’t privy to.
The screenplay rests its majority on the exposition of Watergate and what it meant to the FBI and their investigation into it. I found it very surprising that the White House and the Bureau were at such odds during this time, leading to an inevitable confrontation between the heavyweights that rule the free world. The positive is that this script doesn’t waste time in getting to know all of the key figures and movements associated with this circumstance. This is a crisp 98 minute film that doesn’t require you to wait long periods before the next informative tidbit. Yet despite this, the film is a dull engagement, not because of its pacing, but because the film takes too much of its brief runtime in highlighting the answers over-and-over again that we have learned minutes prior. The ability to move on to greener pastures is one that ‘Mark Felt’ as a film stumbles on specifically, and it doesn’t make sense that something that moves so rapidly in timeline sequencing could stay so stilted in its exposition from scene to scene. Interesting enough, there is a subplot within the film that revolved around Felt’s only daughter (Played by Maika Monroe) missing for the better part of the last year from he and his wife (Played by Diane Lane). This subplot kind of comes out of nowhere, but interestingly enough, it’s in its brief and subtle deliveries of background information where this element of script won me over, and made me want to spend more time delving into the mysteries of this hidden gift of intrigue beneath the surface. That should tell you everything you need to know about where my mind of interest was for this film.
Adding to it is a tone that does stack the blocks of cliffhanger structure accordingly, but fails to pay us off in an effective manner that values our investment to come so far. There is a sense of a movie kind of atmosphere at work here, hinging on the values of the worst kind of nightmare happening to us beneath our own noses, but the film’s lack of urgency in playing up the drama can make something so dangerous to our own freedoms feel like a scratch that can be healed by a band-aid. 2016’s ‘Snowden’ had a bit of the same problems, but better capitalized on the psychology of its central character to overcome those burdens. Where ‘Mark Felt’ could use an advantage is in taking the liberties within a Hollywood script that plays up the absurdity of paranoia and the effects that it can have on the deteriorating mental state. There’s very few chances that we get to see Felt look and feel uncomfortable, and because his invisible shield never appears to crumble, we never get a taste of the dangerous threat the swallows he and his co-workers whole during some building numbers of adversity that constantly remind him that he’s getting far too close to make it out alive.
At least the film is shot with enough command for subtle symbolism in the cinematography department that artistically derives what the tone lacks in consistency. There’s a lot of darkness and off shades of grey in the form of blue’s and green’s that hint at the poison that is being released within and surrounding these characters who are being dragged into it with each passing moment. Longtime cinematographer Adam Kimmel coins perhaps his greatest work to date, combing through the darkness of Washington that does play a noticeable immersion within each sequence of discussion. The sleek personal style of camera work also plays a pivotal part in the stylistic choices by the production. The tight-knitted shots give a kind of growing claustrophobia to the progression of each scene, leaving us as an audience very little room to escape the underlying plan being performed right in front of us by so many crooked politicians.
As for performances, this is a who’s who of accomplished actors that combine for arguably the very best ensemble cast of the year. Neeson is again solid, this time as a crippling agent who feels so alone in the world despite the growing number of co-workers who respect and protect him. Liam gets a role like this one every couple of years that remind us he is so much more than just an action star, and as Felt we understand from within the register of Neeson that honor, loyalty, and command are three traits necessary in walking a straight path. Diane Lane is also sensational in her role as the wife of Felt. Diane commands Audrey with such fragility and pain enveloped in this woman overrun by life, and waiting for the day when her husband will join her in futility. In addition to these two main cast members, Michael C Hall, Martin Csokas, Josh Lucas, and even the great Tom Sizemore all make noteworthy contributions to the cause, rounding out a strong list of committed performances and versatility in screenplay to give them all something to do than just be table dressing to the film’s politically crippling setting.
THE VERDICT – ‘Mark Felt’ is definitely a film that deserved a lot more passion and energy in terms of the phoned-in direction that Landesman is unfortunately saddled with here, leading to him being the man who brought down the film about a man who brought down the White House. Even while a taxing effort mentally, the film has a lot of spirited dedication in the form of entertaining performances and endless style that perfectly establishes a time of grave mystery for the world’s leaders. In the end, the film (Like the theft of Watergate) never feels like it’s in the same room as the material being discussed, leaving much to desire about the facts of one fateful meeting that has us as an audience on the outside looking in.