There’s history, and then there’s Hollywood history. Most often they diverge, but when it comes to the Watergate scandal, they have dovetailed with rare symmetry. In the classic 1976 political thriller All the President’s Men, Robert Redford immortalized Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward as a saviour of American democracy who, along with colleague Carl Bernstein, broke the story that toppled Richard Nixon from the presidency. That’s the history we’ve come to accept.
But now a new movie, Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House, pulls an unsung hero out of the shadows and gives him the credit. Mark Felt, the number two man at the FBI, was Deep Throat, the anonymous leaker who fed details of the Bureau’s Watergate investigation to Woodward and Bernstein. As portrayed by a grim and stoical Liam Neeson, he’s a tragic hero, haunted by shame and seething with repressed rage. Felt preserved his anonymity for three decades, only confessing to being Deep Throat at the age of 92, three years before his death. Although he came out in Vanity Fair, the newsstand’s altar of celebrity, he remains such an obscure figure that his name can’t sell a movie without a subtitle.
As soon as the story broke in May 2005—filmmaker Peter Landesman began to research the movie that became Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House. But even as he finished the movie, Landesman had no idea how it would drop into America’s political landscape with such uncanny timing. Consider the basic plot line: As the FBI investigates a criminal conspiracy that leads directly to the Oval Office, the President tries to shut down the investigation, prompting the FBI veteran in charge of it to go rogue.
There are obvious differences between Felt’s intrigue and the drama of President Donald Trump firing then-FBI director James Comey—notably, that Felt guarded his secret for 30 years, while Comey performed as a whistleblower on live television just a month after he lost his job. Nevertheless, Mark Felt‘s gothic tale of a G-man who takes on a corrupt president descends on the contemporary scene like the visitation of the ghost in Hamlet.
“It’s just another example of how human behaviour never changes,” said Landesman, interviewed at last month’s Toronto International Film Festival. “Powerful and greedy people rise, they do things to protect themselves, usually bad things, and there’s usually somebody who has enough integrity to stand up and throw himself on the grenade for the truth.”
The 52-year-old New York filmmaker, who has dramatized real-life stories in movies like Concussion and Parkland, was once a top investigative reporter for the New York Times Magazine. From his dark suit to his immaculate buzz-cut, he has the bullet-smooth posture of a man who knows his way around the back channels of power. At one point, he tosses out a confident prediction: “Jim Comey is going to run for President.” Really? How would he know? “From him and the people around him,” replies the director. “Nothing in Washington is secret. It’s like Hollywood, without the money.”
Landesman, who knows Comey well enough to refer to him as “Jim,” says the fired FBI director needs to lie low for now but will eventually jump into politics. He adds that he’s been asked by “a lot of people” to make a movie about Comey and the Russia scandal. “The story’s not done yet,” he says, but if it were a movie, there’s no question that Comey, not FBI investigator Robert Mueller, would be its protagonist. “Mueller’s just a dog with a bone. Comey has a larger vision.”
In an era where everyone’s secrets and lies are so nakedly out in the open and political upheavals are being measured for Hollywood movies before they’re half-over, Felt’s silent heroism is a throwback to a more innocent age of skullduggery. “It was easier to be anonymous in those days, but to me his anonymity is proof that he did it for the right reasons,” says Landesman. “No one knew that Mark Felt was Deep Throat. If he hadn’t confessed, he would have taken it to the grave, and it would have been up to Woodward and Bernstein to decide when they were going to reveal the truth.”
Felt hated the porn code name the reporters had given him. “He was an upstanding Christian father and it made him livid,” says Landesman. “It was a source of shame, and one of the two reasons he remained anonymous. The other reason is pure. He had a legacy and was ultimately proud of what he had done. There are very few heroes, and he’s one of mine—I spent roughly three years with him before he died.”
Liam Neeson doesn’t view Felt quite the same way. “Peter sees him as an out-and-out hero,” he says in a separate interview. “I think there are much more shades of grey.” As the FBI’s associate director, Felt was the heir apparent to J. Edgar Hoover, but after Hoover’s death, Nixon appointed an inexperienced stooge, L. Patrick Gray, to be his successor, just as Watergate was erupting; when Gray stepped down as acting director less than a year later, Felt was passed over again. “I think Felt was deeply crushed that he was overlooked to be head of the FBI,” argues Neeson. “He was Hoover’s acolyte. Felt’s associates were really hurt by this too. They got very concerned about the status of the FBI that Hoover had set up for 45 years.”
Felt’s subterfuge as Deep Throat wasn’t the only aspect of his life embroiled in high drama. In 1972, he secretly authorized FBI agents to break into homes without a warrant in pursuit of the Weather Underground bombers. In 1980, he was convicted and fined for the illegal break-ins—an ironic fate for the man who had exposed the Watergate break-ins. Felt was pardoned by President Ronald Reagan, but his ordeal cast a long shadow. In 1984, his wife, Audrey—played in the film by Diane Lane as a raging alcoholic—would commit suicide. “Audrey was probably undiagnosed bipolar,” says Landesman. “She was drunk by 11 am. There’s no question that Felt’s demise destroyed what little hope she had left for their lives. She’d sacrificed everything for that career of his.”
Further complicating Felt’s life in the early 1970s was the disappearance of his daughter, Joan, a Fulbright scholar who was ” lovely and beautiful and smart,” says Landesman, whose film shows Felt trying to track down Joan amid his Watergate investigation, worried she may have joined the Weather Underground. Landesman goes on to reveal some darker details that are not in the film. Much of his information about Felt’s personal life came from “a very close family friend, who became Felt’s girlfriend after Audrey died,” he says. “It was a very complicated relationship because Audrey Felt had a similar—maybe not consummated—relationship with [the friend’s] husband. That man also committed suicide by shooting himself in the head.”
It sounds like it could be a whole other movie. “I wanted to embrace the complexity of him as a man,” says Landesman. “We’re all a stew of motivations.” But as the film struggles to contain the Shakespearean depths of Felt’s struggle, it can deliver only the broad strokes, in a black-and-white morality tale that reduces Felt’s home life to a subplot.
Landesman tries to convey what’s left unsaid via tone and mood, casting Felt’s political world in a chilly, blue-filtered light. Looking almost unrecognizable, a gaunt, white-haired Neeson stalks its battlements as a spectral figure, shouldering the full brunt of the drama with a ruthless sense of sacrificial mission. And while Felt is secretly saving America, the actor’s totemic, sharply calibrated performance is saving the movie.
Neeson admits it was challenge to build a performance around such a circumspect character. He says he eked out some small opportunities from the script—”here I can show my emotion, here we can unzip the man—the rest of the time it’s a guy sitting in an office, walking down corridors and being a blank. I thought, ‘OK, the audience can take that up to a point.’ But if you’re the lead, you have to show something.”
Speaking in that soft Irish burr, as the actor unzips his own performance, he could be embarking on a critique of the movie, or at least his unresolved frustration with the role. He recalls talking to Felt’s grandson at the premiere, who told him, “My father was emotional. He wasn’t just this inscrutable, unreadable screen. But he could pull that veil over when he was at work.” Felt’s private life, adds Neeson, was so private that even Woodward, who knew him for years, wasn’t aware of his runaway daughter.
Woodward and Bernstein have a surprisingly marginal presence in the film. Felt’s key scenes with a journalist took place not in the infamous underground garage, but in a diner with Time magazine editor Sandy Smith (Bruce Greenwood), an old friend of Felt’s who played a less prominent role in exposing Watergate. While preparing the film, Neeson re-watched All The President’s Men. “It’s an extraordinary movie,” he says. “It really holds up.” But for an actor chasing Watergate’s ghost through the shadows of history, it would be hard not to feel a twinge of envy seeing Robert Redford shine as the crusading hero on the other side of the story.
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