Director: Peter Landesman
Cast: Liam Neeson, Diane Lane, Maika Monroe, Josh Lucas, Ike Barinholtz, Michael C. Hall, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Eddie Marsan, Marton Csokas, Tom Sizemore, Bruce Greenwood
Runtime: 1 hr 43 mins
Rating: PG13 (Brief Nudity)
Released By: Cathay-Keris Films
Opening Day: 5 October 2017
Synopsis: "Deep Throat" was the fictitious name given to the notorious insider who revealed one of the greatest scandals of all time. Amidst the chilling uncertainty of the Cold War tensions, the true identity of the conspirator remained a mystery and source of much public speculation for more than 30 years. That is until in 2005, special agent Mark Felt shockingly revealed himself as the tipster. This powerful, gripping and unbelievable true story of the brilliant and uncompromising spy who risked everything and ultimately sacrificed everything to expose the most carefully guarded secret in intelligence history.
Better known as ‘Deep Throat’, Mark Felt was the instrumental source – or the notorious whistleblower, depending on which way you look at it – who provided reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of The Washington Post with insider information from the FBI that led to the unravelling of the Watergate conspiracy and eventually the resignation of President Nixon himself. Felt wasn’t some low-level agent; oh no, he was a career FBI officer who had spent 31 years within the labyrinth walls of the hallowed institution, who was once considered next in line to succeed J. Edgar Hoover before Nixon decided to install one of his own cronies from outside the organisation. As seen through the eyes of writer-director Peter Landesman, Felt may have been driven as much by his wounded pride as by what he perceived as existential threats to the organisation whose very fundamental basis of independence was about to be compromised by a corrupt White House administration.
Two comparisons are inevitable – first, to the 1976 classic ‘All The President’s Men’, which unfolded as a procedural centred on Woodward and Bernstein but featured Felt in a supporting role played by Hal Holbrook; and second, to recent events surrounding the current Trump administration, especially with his firing of FBI director James Comey. On the former, Landesman has shrewdly differentiated his own film by fashioning it as a biopic – as opposed to say, a procedural on investigative journalism – which focuses on his title subject’s psychological and emotional motives for becoming the most famous leaker of the 20th century; and to his credit, both are compellingly portrayed, thanks too to a sharp lead performance by Liam Neeson. The latter, however tempting, should be read as accidental than intentional; indeed, it doesn’t serve the movie at all to view its retelling through the lens of contemporary events, chiefly because the circumstances (including the fact that the same party to which the President belongs to controls both Houses of Congress) are in fact significantly different.
From Felt’s point of view, the Watergate scandal unfolded as a series of bureaucratic scheming, and Landesman dramatizes these with a fair amount of dramatic flair. Between Felt’s one-on-one meetings with Nixon’s toady L. Patrick Gray (Martin Csokas) to Felt’s huddles with his inner-circle of trusted FBI colleagues (played by a talented supporting ensemble comprising Josh Lucas, Tony Goldwyn, Ike Barinholtz and Brian d’Arcy James), there is plenty of cloak-and-dagger intrigue to keep you absorbed. In particular, the first half of the movie sees Gray try to out-manoeuvre Felt, including getting one of Felt’s associates to share detailed information from Watergate, suppressing evidence, curtailing further investigation, and working with the attorney general to mischaracterise findings and make false statements; on the other hand, the latter half depicts an increasingly agitated Gray as well as a concomitantly nervy Felt deal with the fallout from the stream of leaks, especially with the White House breathing down their necks.
Somewhat disappointingly though, there doesn’t seem to be enough attention placed on Felt’s leaks to the press. There is a familiar scene here (from ‘All the President’s Men’) of Felt meeting with Woodward (Julian Morris) in a dark parking garage, but there is little details or suspense in this re-enactment. Felt’s scenes with Time reporter Sandy Smith (Bruce Greenwood) at a local diner pack more punch, both because their exchanges are played out a lot more and because Greenwood is a much more convincing Smith than the all-too boyish Morris is as Woodward. Otherwise, it isn’t quite said just how Felt manages to slip past the scrutiny placed on him by the White House to arrange those meetings with Woodward and Smith. Ditto the undoubted rapport that must have developed between Felt and Woodward over the course of those tense few months, seeing as how it was Woodward who gave Felt the nickname that he is most known for in popular culture.
There is also a whole domestic subplot concerning Felt’s home life, what with a wife (Diane Lane) who dutifully shouldered the responsibility of moving from town to town 13 times over the course of Felt’s career assignments and with a daughter who walks out of the house to join the counterculture against the very FBI. That and an epilogue that has Felt face a Grand Jury for illegal wiretaps into the leftist activists of the Weather Underground attempts to humanise Felt, but these are scarcely developed enough to serve as balance to his covert life. Despite her usual grace therefore, Lane is largely stuck in a thankless role here, appearing in so little of the movie that you wonder why she even bothered. This is Neeson’s show through and through, and the actor is a mighty aura indeed – dignified as always, steeped in gravitas, and sharp yet sufficiently nuanced to portray his character’s inner conflict especially in the later scenes. If the ‘Taken’ series has somehow reduced him in the public’s eye to a stock action type, this is as timely a reminder as any that the one-time Oscar nominee is long overdue for a Best Actor award.
Pity then that Neeson’s commanding performance towers above the very film itself, which is an engaging but incomplete biopic of its intriguing subject. What it does best is to provide an alternate perspective to the Watergate era as well as a peek into the turmoil within the FBI during that period, through and especially for the agents who have fiercely protected and prided their institution’s independence and integrity from politics itself. What it fails to do as much as it does try is an understanding of Felt himself outside of his identity as the legendary Watergate mole; and what it fails to do because it doesn’t try is showing how Felt managed to accomplish those very leaks in the midst of the watchful eyes of his very own colleagues. As with his previous films, ‘Mark Felt’ sees the former investigative journalist Landesman try to work his filmmaking instincts around real-life socio-political controversies, and though there is some way to go before his skills match his intentions, this is a flawed but important film that deserves to be seen, accidentally relevant or otherwise.
(Liam Neeson gives a commanding, dignified and mighty performance as the title character, but the film - absorbing and important though it may be - is an incomplete and ultimately flawed biopic of its intriguing subject)
Review by Gabriel Chong