Mark Felt, the man who brought down the White House, was second in command of the FBI in the seventies. He was also the anonymous “Deep Throat”, the whistleblower who blew the lid on the Watergate scandal in 1972, enabling journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post to break the story. Felt kept his identity secret for some thirty years, finally revealing it in a magazine article in 2005, three years before his death. Here is the never before seen story, as they say.
This is a very different role for frequent action man Liam Neeson. With his hair heavily greyed and a patrician face, which seems to be almost carved out of stone, betraying no emotion, he is at times nearly unrecognizable. He brings a strong presence to the role but the title of the film promises more than it delivers, in that the character is so controlled and self contained we never get to know the man.
It is also I suspect going to be difficult certainly for non Americans and possibly audiences of all nationalities, who are too young to remember Watergate, to follow the complexities of the story, which are not very well explained in terms of dramatic action. Much of the film is taken up by men in suits talking and it’s not always clear exactly what they are talking about.
The opening scenes dealing with the death of bureau founder J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI’s withholding of his secret files from the presidential office and the CIA are reasonably clear but the details of the Watergate conspiracy are not. And what appears to be the central point of Felt’s motivation – why he was loyal to Hoover’s policy yet against the corruption of the Nixon regime and its not dissimilar spying tactics – again is a bit murky.
The controlled nature of Felt’s personality also allows us little insight into the man as a private person in the scenes of his family life. The only time he totally comes to life and indeed smiles is when he is reunited with his estranged daughter and meets his grandchild for the first time in the hippy community where she lives. Diane Lane as his wife wears some lovely outfits but has few dramatic opportunities, apart from in that same scene, while Eddie Marsan is somewhat wasted in his one scene as someone from the CIA.
The only character who comes over with any real clarity and dynamism is Marton Csokas as former Nixon aide L. Patrick Gray, promoted by President Nixon to be Acting FBI Director over Felt’s head. Bruce Greenwood plays Sandy Smith, whom research, not the film, tells me was a journalist. He has little more to do than be a sounding board for Felt but his role in the story again is not clear. Fans of “All the President’s Men” should be warned that Julian Morris as the now famous journalist Bob Woodward has a very small part and Bernstein doesn’t appear at all.
In many ways the most enlightening part of the film is the information we are given just before the closing credits about what happened to Felt and his wife in the years after Watergate. Sadly none of the seeds of that really come over in the film.