Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White HouseReviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 11/11/17 18:14:24
It's quite possible that the biggest mistake filmmaker Peter Landesman made in adapting the memoirs Mark Felt wrote with John O'Connor is focusing on his role in first investigating the Watergate break-ins and then leaking them to the press. Yes, they are the most dramatic parts of his career with the widest-reaching consequences, but are they the most interesting stories to tell about this man? I'm not sure. And if they are, they may still be too complicated to address in a film this size, even without the other elements of Felt's story being given time.Take the question that opens the film, before the Watergate break-ins, when John Dean (Michael C. Hall) and other Nixon advisors bring Deputy Assistant FBI Director W. Mark Felt (Liam Neeson) in to a meeting to feel out what it would take to get director J. Edgar Hoover to resign. Felt dismisses the notion as impossible, emphasizing the private files Hoover has on all of Washington - which, by the way, all went through him. But when Hoover dies, Felt executes Hoover's orders to destroy the files, and it's an intriguing dynamic - this information, unsavory as it was, had in practical terms guaranteed the Bureau's autonomy. Felt believes in this autonomy fervently, fanatically even, but doesn't seem to have the stomach for gathering and managing blackmail material. It's a potentially fascinating thread that seems like it should be at the center of the film: That the Watergate break-in itself might have only been considered because the FBI had weakened itself, and giving the investigation its proper teeth required Felt to go outside the Bureau's proper mode of operation, albeit in a different way.
It's likely something that Landesman (and, earlier, Felt and O'Connor) considered, but it's not addressed directly, with Felt visibly wrestling with it. Perhaps the very fact that I'm mentioning it now means that the filmmakers did well enough in laying it out, especially since it's arguable that this sort of career G-man would not have been prone to this sort of open self-reflection. Still, Landesman is not opposed to shoehorning in some awkward exposition in other spots, and he has Liam Neeson play Felt with such firm assurance that it's often easy to recall the credit from the start that points out that this was adapted from books Felt co-wrote - it begins to feel almost self-serving, despite the many hands that it would have to pass through between Felt trying to justify his actions and the screen. It doesn't help that the film ends in mid-pregnant pause, like Landesman found a great stranger-than-fiction moment but couldn't figure out how to make it fit his take on Felt, so he just stopped.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the film, there's Felt, his wife Audrey (Diane Lane), and their missing daughter Joan. It's another almost too-good-to-be-true story, the career Fed's daughter being part of the counterculture and him methodically trying to find her on his own time while investigating the Weather Underground occupies a fair amount of the Bureau's resources. It's a part of the story that feels like it could flesh out Felt in a big way, from the groovy 1970s get-together the Felts and another couple have at the opening to the eventual reunion (and an eyebrow-raising bit of text between the last scene and the end credits), but it's woefully underexplored. Audrey's background comes out from the most awkward bit of self-description seen in a recent film but it seems too pat, and Diane Lane's scenes as Audrey were apparently cut to the bone until only the most rigid are left. The relationship between Mark and Joan is presented as the filmmakers telling the audience to take their word for it, which is kind of maddening: An early scene has Mark describing Joan as "just like me" even after we've seen her incredibly anti-establishment bedroom, but the film never questions this obviously counter-intuitive assertion, either by giving Maika Monroe a chance to make Joan feel like Mark's daughter or by digging into how he may have a hippie streak underneath his dark suits.
All of this is presumably given short shrift so that the film can concentrate on the Watergate investigation, but there's still not enough room to do that justice. Landesman hits dates and major events, but there's little room for anybody but Felt to play a major part, which means some parts get skipped and some get slanted (Julian Morris plays Bob Woodward as a wide-eyed kid, little more than a useful tool for Felt). The conspiracy he's uncovering is seen at just the surface level, with Nixon entirely off-screen except for some archive footage and Tom Sizemore and Marton Csokas playing bland figures more important as immediate irritants to Felt than what they represent.The filmmakers may have wound up unlucky in how the world changed between when they shot it in mid-2016 and its release in late 2017, where viewers are likely giving an awful lot more thought to how a Administration can interfere in an investigation to project itself. It's hard to tell whether they saw an opportunity for present-day relevance and tried to enhance that thread at the expense of the rest of the film or whether that's one of many factors that now seems to have more importance than the finished product can carry. Even without that to consider, though, "Mark Felt" (aka "The Secret Man") is a weak film, not developing any of its three interesting angles enough, let alone making them into facets of a more interesting whole.
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