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 — Felt was reportedly called the “white rat” inside the bureau — 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 — and a prescient one, given the story’s resonance with the firing of FBI director James B. Comey and the investigations that have engulfed the Trump administration. As an avatar for the much maligned “deep state,” Landesman’s Felt isn’t a rat, but a paragon of institutional memory, personal ethics and self-sacrifice.
Those who consider Felt a more Cromwellian figure might take issue with the lionizing. But “Mark Felt” nonetheless presents an absorbing alternate view to a story that most Americans know from the 1976 thriller “All the President’s Men.” Landesman addresses that 400-pound classic in the room squarely, by staging the familiar scene with Felt and Woodward in the familiar, iconic parking garage. Here, though, a young Bob Woodward isn’t played by a 40-year-old movie star a la Robert Redford, but as a young, somewhat laughably wide-eyed reporter by Julian Morris. “That’s Election Day,” Woodward exclaims, after Felt invokes the date Nov. 7, 1972 — a particularly clunky piece of exposition within a frequently too-obvious script.
Eschewing the brooding monumentality of “All the President’s Men,” Landesman opts for more schematic production values. “Mark Felt” was filmed in Atlanta, which he masks with intrusive blue tints and a “House of Cards”-esque musical score to lend an air of palace intrigue and foreboding. 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.” At one point, the couple leave their suburban home for the West Coast, releasing the air from what has promised to be a modestly compelling cat-and-mouse game of infighting, maneuvering and evasion. Some of the film’s best scenes feature a convincingly cagey Bruce Greenwood as Time reporter Sandy Smith, with whom Felt meets over pie at a local diner.
Landesman also 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.
PG-13. At area theaters. Contains some obscenity. 103 minutes.