“Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House,” an historical wannabe thriller with an arduous subtitle, presents an executive branch in a state of chaos, scandal and interagency upheaval. There are whispers in darkened rooms of the president firing the FBI director, of government agencies struggling to maintain their independence from a commander-in-chief who demands their loyalty, of a constant stream of leaks threatening to blow the cover off the entire administration. The president, when finally forced to resign, says on television, “I must put the intentions of America first.”
If you know who Mark Felt is, you know we’re talking about Richard Nixon, not the Oval Office’s current occupant, but the movie’s writer-director, Peter Landesman, revels in the similarities between these most shambolic of administrations: As Watergate went, so may Russiagate.
This is one of the jobs of historical nonfiction—to illuminate our current moment by, in this instance, revealing how little has changed in more than 40 years. The problem is that Landesman’s movie is also a shambles, a jumble of rote clichés passing itself off as a linear story. If you haven’t recently re-watched “All the President’s Men,” Alan J. Pakula’s masterly dramatization of the Watergate investigation, you’ll be lost in this film’s impenetrable narrative fog. For drama like this to work, there needs to be a coherent through-line: A + B + C = Nixon resigns. If one ever existed in the original drafts of Mark Felt, it didn’t make it into the final cut, which feels like a three-hour movie chopped and pruned and shuffled into 106 unfocused minutes.
As the first prominent whistleblower of the modern political era, Felt famously leaked damaging information about the Watergate investigation to The Washington Post. As played by Liam Neeson, this career FBI man is the picture of erect, incorruptible integrity, one of the few men with a moral compass in an ethically bankrupt administration. Battling a stilted screenplay by adding snarls and exclamation points to the ponderous dialogue, Neeson’s Felt is nothing less than a saint in a suit and tie. If this were a western, he’d be wearing the white hat.
Rallying his beleaguered fellow-agents amid Nixon’s crackdown of the intelligence apparatus, Felt reminds us of the “breadcrumbs leading in the general direction of the Oval Office.” One of the recipients of his leaks, a Time reporter played by Bruce Greenwood, tells Felt (mostly for our benefit), “What you’re doing will bring down the whole house of cards.” Too bad we have to take their word for it.
Instead of evidence to support these trailer-ready declarations, we get the usual shadowplay of secondhand spy theatre—secret meetings in public parks and greasy spoons; the inevitable montage of Felt searching his office for “bugs;” ominously scored, portentous overhead shots of D.C. landmarks. The tone is grave, witless and underlit; perhaps Neeson’s salary precluded the ability to afford light bulbs on set.
One can only imagine the liveliness and linguistic crackle that an Aaron Sorkin could have brought to this project. Or perhaps there just isn’t enough there there in Felt’s story to warrant his own movie. Perhaps he’s fine lurking in the shadows of parking garages, delivering deep-throated revelations to dogged reporters.
As if realizing that Felt’s whistleblowing agenda was light on entertainment value, Landesman occasionally cuts away to an underdeveloped subplot about Felt and his wife Audrey (an unpleasant Diane Lane) searching for their daughter Joan, a revolutionary who ran away from home. This missing-daughter trope allows Neeson to revisit the parental persistence of his “Taken” franchise, but by the time it’s resolved, the conclusion is, like the movie’s stolid wrap-up of Watergate, too little and too late.
“Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House” opens Friday at Living Room Theaters at FAU, Cinemark Boynton Beach, and Cinema Paradiso in Hollywood.