Peter Landesman’s film Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House (2017) annoyed the hell out of me. So much that I felt compelled to isolate the elements that motivated my displeasure. And whether these were of my own confection. Or whether they lay in the structure and content of the film. After being annoyed long enough, I concluded the film is likely to become more significant as time passes. With hindsight. With the Trump administration in the rear-view.
My mistake, at first instance, had been to expect a story about Watergate. Or Nixon’s FBI. Or a G-Man.
That’s what Landesman’s script led me to believe. On the surface. Because I fell into the trap of an idiotic literalism in my interpretation. A literalism of the kind I despise in the last two generations.
Landesman did contribute. With a confusing mix of subplots. And by introducing and moving between a large cast of characters hardly anyone remembers today. Characters whose relevance was hardly explored. You are supposed to know who they were and what they did.
In the middle of it is Mark Felt (Liam Neeson). We see Felt as defender of Hoover’s blackmailing FBI. We see Felt as the resentful, passed-over career man. We see Felt as the husband to a bitter, dipsomaniac wife. We see Felt as the duplicitous right hand man, feigning loyalty and acting to betray his bosses. We see Felt as the outraged idealist rebelling against the corruption of Nixon’s White House. We see Felt as the remorseful father looking for his estranged daughter.
What we don’t see is an underlying theme pulling it all together into a coherent whole. And that’s what annoyed me so much.
Landesman is experienced enough as a reporter and script-writer to know that a piece of work cannot head off into too many different directions, and still make sense. He is an experienced enough writer to know that audiences deserve to be informed and enlightened without being confused and distracted.
The script is based on one of two Felt autobiographies, A G-Man’s Life (2006), co-written by journalist John O’Connor, and published two years before Felt’s death from heart failure. It is likely that Felt, born in 1913, was already suffering from senile dementia while it was being written. It was released a year after Felt told Vanity Fair he was Woodward and Bernstein’s ‘Deep Throat’ source for their explosive Watergate stories.
The story was always going to be littered with all the Watergate characters, even if Woodward appears in only one short scene of the film.
There’s no question that choosing Michael C Hall to play John Dean was inspired. And sneaky. Being typecast is a terrible thing. But, in this case, delicious too. Hall had played TV serial killer Dexter for seven years. It’s impossible for me not to snicker at the notion of Nixon fixer Dean being likened to a psychotic murderer.
Marton Csokas as L Patrick Gray almost stole the oxygen from Neeson’s Mark Felt. Gray was appointed acting director after Hoover’s death. He was a WWII submarine commander, and Assistant Attorney General, but with no law enforcement background. Felt was passed over for this ‘outsider’, portrayed as beholden to the Nixon administration.
For me the most powerful supporting rôle came from Tom Sizemore as a scheming, amoral William C Sullivan. Perhaps that characterisation was ahistorical, but for a while it looked like Sullivan was also one of Felt’s rivals for the top job at the FBI. And there is a short scene in which Felt rebukes him for his rôle in discrediting Martin Luther King. An odd scene, since Felt himself had contributed to the lawless Cointelpro programme of ‘black bag’ activities. That Sullivan should be portrayed as a mercenary scoundrel probably has much to do with an American ideological commitment to Martin Luther King as a national hero. A status I think blinds people to his hypocrisy, opportunism, and infidelities.
It is well beyond the scope of the story, and certainly not mentioned, but Sullivan was one of six former or serving FBI men to die in 1977, shortly before they were to give evidence before the House Select Committee on Intelligence Activities and the House Select Committee on Assassinations (probing the murder of JFK). The others were Alan Belmont, James Cardigan, JM English, Donald Kaylor, and Louis Nichols. Also dead before they could testify were the CIA’s Sheffield Edwards, William King ‘Wild Bill’ Harvey, Thomas Hercules Karamessines, David Sánchez Morales, John Paisley, and William Pawley. No suspicious circumstances were reported in any of these deaths. Coincidences do happen. I just don’t believe in too many of them coinciding. Food for thought about the culture of the American intelligence and law enforcement agencies of the era?
A more incongruous character in the film was Diane Lane as Audrey Felt, shown as the embittered, dipsomaniac spouse of the protagonist. The sparse scenes in which she appeared annoyed me the most. Lane is an accomplished actor, but was thrown away almost as a deliberate distraction, adding nothing to the story. The reunion with their estranged daughter is also a pointless distraction which leads nowhere. It meant something only to Felt, because after his wife’s suicide, he lived out the rest of his days in his daughter’s care.
Looking into this aspect of the film, I found a news story quoting Neeson voicing disappointment that many of Lane’s scenes were cut, and Landesman explaining that he might have cut the film to make Felt’s personal life the main story, with Watergate only as the backdrop. But he didn’t. Instead he cut ‘half a dozen scenes’ with Lane, making the remainder almost meaningless. And the film was clearly presented to audiences as The Man Who Brought Down the White House.
Overall, what we get are raw incidents loosely connected together in a chronology that ignores many other momentous events of the era. In that respect it has the feel of an unfinished work.
I was at a loss to explain to myself how such a fine cast, good production quality, and an experienced writer/director did not add up to a tighter script with a more focused plot.
Contemplating how this could happen, I realised that the film might not have been about Watergate at all, nor any of the characters except Felt. The film might have been, instead, about an institution in crisis, staggering from the psychotic agenda of a former director to the ambition of a dictatorial president to subvert its function for his own ends.
And that idea lends some solid grounding to the way the story is presented.
In the era of likely corrupt, and even treasonous activities by Donald Trump’s political operatives, and by the President himself, the story of Mark Felt might be an editorial comment on what contemporary senior FBI figures need to do to preserve whatever integrity the FBI may have left. By exposing corruption to the highest levels. In spite of their personal and professional circumstances.
In that context the film’s intermingling of personal and public life, support for the corruption of a director but not of a President, and the duplicity of whistleblowing, all begin to make sense.
It is on that level that the film may come to be more highly regarded in the future than in the present. Particularly if these themes are played out in life, to bring down the White House. Again.
I must assume in good faith that Landesman is a professional who did not make a huge mistake in scripting, directing, and cutting the film.
Accordingly I must assume his intended audience is not the armies of ignorant millennials with their ignorance-driven assumption of literalism in story-telling. Instead he plays to an audience that is familiar with the Watergate scandal, and the Nixon era. That audience is in its 50s or older. Precisely the age of Washington ‘insiders’ and FBI careerists who may be able to act against White House pressures to derail corruption investigations.
If my supposition is at all accurate, Landesman has actually pulled off a remarkable piece of ‘counterintelligence’. A field in which Felt was an expert. A craft, when practiced well, that confuses, undermines, and misleads a targeted enemy.
This is how I choose to see the film after reconsidering my first impressions.
Given the choice between superhero fantasies, romantic comedies, and Disney pap, Mark Felt is a better choice of viewing. Even if you disagree with me. Or you agree with only my first suspicion about an annoyingly unfinished work.