I love a good Liam Neeson actioner as much as the next moviegoer, but before Neeson acquired his “very particular set of skills,” he was a pretty solid dramatic actor whose imposing height, stony features and baritone voice made him the perfect person of authority. So it’s especially nice to see him return to those roots with Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House, a complex but extremely well-made investigative drama about one of the FBI’s top men, who was put in charge of figuring out the Watergate Hotel break in and eventually became the anonymous Washington Post source known as “Deep Throat.”
Based on books written by Felt himself and John D. O’Connor, and adapted by director Peter Landesman (who wrote Kill the Messenger and wrote/directed Concussion and Parkland), who specializes in true-life stories, Mark Felt begins with the death of J. Edgar Hoover. It was assumed by many that Felt would get the director’s job, but the Nixon White House wanted to put someone in who would be a little more willing to share information.
So L. Patrick Gray (Marton Csokas) was appointed to the job, and he immediately began taking meetings with the likes of White House Counsel John Dean (Michael C. Hall), even though the White House had no jurisdiction over the bureau’s work or resulting information. Seeing that the White House was beginning to interfere with the Watergate investigation, Felt assembled a small team of trusted agents to do the work, more or less unencumbered, while he held secret meetings with some of his friends in the media.
Media leaks at this level may seem commonplace today, but in the 1960s, it was virtually unheard of, as was this level of infiltration into FBI business. Felt was no knee-jerk liberal (though he was a registered Democrat), but he was a pillar of procedure and protocol, and when he saw these processes being ignored, he was driven to get the truth out into the world. Diane Lane plays wife Audrey Felt with more dignity and authority than is usually given to spouse characters in male-dominated films; Lane has rarely played the dutiful wife, and it’s always a pleasure to see her step up in what could have been a thankless role.
Also on hand playing other agents at various levels of this investigation are Tony Goldwyn, Josh Lucas, and Ike Barinholtz, with Bruce Greenwood as Time magazine’s Sandy Smith and Julian Morris as Bob Woodward of the Post. The real thrill of the movie isn’t finding out if Felt is discovered (we know he was never revealed until he did so himself in 2005), it’s watching how many people are so sure he is above suspicion that they just circle around him looking for the real leak.
Filmmaker Landesman bobs and weaves through some complicated material and an ocean of paranoia with undeniable skill. And Neeson’s buttoned-down, bordering on uptight, performance as Felt is a genuine pleasure to behold. It’s nice to be reminded that he’s capable of dialing things back a bit, and not showing all of his acting cards in violent outbursts and quippy dialogue.
Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House is far from perfect. The story’s “villains” are a bit too sinister at times, especially Tom Sizemore’s disgraced agent Bill Sullivan (not sure if this is a real person or composite, but he might as well be wearing a black cowboy hat and a scar across his face), who practically gets aroused making life tough for Felt.
But there’s also a great deal to like here, from the film’s steely blue and gray visuals to a small army of actors, most of whom are given a lot of room to play and opportunities to shine. Most importantly, if you’re looking for a little more variety out of our current crop of action heroes, this is an excellent alternate reality for Neeson.