The Watergate scandal that, as the overly explanatory title of this biopic notes, has been much in the news of late, and with good reason. Once again, there are rumors of a paranoid, unstable West Wing shirking its constitutional duties in favor of right-wing demagogues and ideologies. In 1972, however, President Richard Milhous Nixon and his cronies paid the ultimate price for the break-in and wiretapping of the Democratic National Committee headquarters in D.C.’s infamous Watergate Hotel. These days, well, no one seems to actually know what’s going on, although nefarious doings are clearly being done somewhere, by someone. That said, Mark Felt should be a riveting historical parallel, or at the very least an alt-right-universe lesson on how not to screw up an already jittery nation. Against all odds, unfortunately, director Landesman’s portrait of FBI Deputy Director Mark Felt (Neeson, well cast), who would eventually reveal that he was the legendary informant – aka “Deep Throat” – leading to the downfall of Nixon’s cryptofascist administration, is its own worst enemy. A roaring snooze that should by all rights be edge-of-your-seat, compelling cinema, Mark Felt lives and dies by Landesman’s laborious script, which revels in the minutiae of the scandal without ever managing an iota of passion.
Don’t blame Neeson, who is excellent as Felt, a career G-man who was second in line to the bureau’s top dog J. Edgar Hoover, and due for Hoover’s position once the old man died. Which he does, offscreen, triggering a fine early scene of the various appendages of assorted FBI staff frantically shredding, burning, and otherwise disposing of Hoover’s notorious, voluminous “secret files.” Soon after, the Watergate burglars are arrested, Felt is kicked to the curb by an increasingly unhinged Nixon (also offscreen), and replaced by the administration’s hand-picked goon L. Patrick Gray (Csokas). Nevertheless, Felt persisted, ultimately turning full-on informant to Woodward and Bernstein of The Washington Post and thus forcing Nixon’s resignation.
Despite some seriously crackerjack casting – Sizemore, Lucas, Hall – and a terrific turn by Diane Lane as Felt’s long-suffering wife Audrey, Mark Felt is resolutely undramatic in portraying the FBI’s continuing investigation. A subplot about Felt’s missing teenage daughter (he frets that she might have joined domestic terrorist organization du jour, the Weather Underground) attempts to humanize the ever inscrutable Felt, but only ends up clogging up the main narrative. Given that this film portrays the greatest threat to the U.S. Constitution up to that point, it’s downright bizarre how dispassionate Landesman’s film ends up. Despite objections to the contrary, Nixon was a crook, and Felt’s dogged determination to dig ever deeper until he finally unearthed the terrible truth ought to have been portrayed with a broader viewpoint. As it is, however, the final cinematic word on Watergate rests firmly with Alan J. Pakula’s All the President’s Men, a film that remains every bit as enthralling today as it was when released in 1976. By comparison, Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House is a frantic, over-detailed yawn.
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