Liam Neeson again plays a hero with a particular set of skills in “Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House.” But instead of those skills involving knives, guns and fists as in “Taken,” they involve meetings, memos and late-night phone calls.
But the stakes here are, if anything, even higher. Felt, the associate director of the FBI during the Nixon administration, was also known as “Deep Throat,” the notorious anonymous source who fed Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein damaging information on the Watergate cover-up. Felt kept his secret for over 30 years until 2005, three years before he died.
So “Mark Felt” is, by necessity, a cooler and quieter film than Neeson’s recent run of action movies. But it has a nervous tension all its own, centered on Neeson’s strong performance as a man of honor deeply conflicted about betraying the government he has pledged to serve. And, of course, it has a timeliness in its tale of a government official, embedded deep within a scandal-ridden administration, leaking stories to journalists.
The film opens in May 1972 with the passing of J. Edgar Hoover. After nearly a half-century as head of the FBI, his death opens up a power vacuum within the bureau. Felt, Hoover’s longtime right hand, is considered by many to be the obvious choice to succeed Hoover in the top spot. Felt is an honorable and respected leader — which worries Nixon’s White House, which wants the new bureau head to defer to the wishes of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
As the FBI’s independence is curtailed and the White House gets its own man, L. Patrick Gray (Martin Czokas) moved in as interim chief, Felt and his loyal lieutenants (Tony Goldwyn and Josh Lucas) are increasingly isolated within the bureau. “You were Hoover’s golden retriever,” a rival agent (Tom Sizemore), sneers at Felt. “Now you’re left holding your own leash.”
When the FBI’s investigation into the June 1972 break-in at the Democratic Campaign Headquarters at the Watergate Hotel begins to turn up suspects with Nixon ties, White House officials like the oily John Dean (Michael C. Hall) put pressure on Gray to limit the scope of the investigation. Felt is incensed. “No one can stop the driving force of an FBI investigation,” he seethes. “Not even the FBI.”
As a fan of Alan J. Pakula’s “All the President’s Men,” it’s fascinating to watch what is essentially the flip side of that story, as Felt surreptitiously leaks classified details to Woodward and Bernstein (as well as Time magazine reporter Sandy Stein, played by a spectacularly seedy Bruce Greenwood). His leaking campaign comes at great cost — as Gray scours the bureau hunting for the leak, Felt has to stand silently by as his loyal subordinates are accused and have their careers destroyed.
Writer-director Howard Landesman (“Concussion”), adapting Felt’s book of the same name, keeps the tone of “Mark Felt” deliberately muted, avoiding any flashy suspense sequences that might make for more of a straight-up thriller. Instead, most of the tension in the film comes from the controlled fury of Neeson’s performance. He’s angry at his superiors for forcing him to do the wrong thing for the right reasons, and Neeson gives us glimpses into Felt’s conflicted conscience.
Looking back, history is very kind to Felt and his decision to expose the Nixon administration’s crimes. Much kinder than he seemed to be on himself, the company man who turned against the company.