MARK FELT: The Quintessential Biopic that Deserves Better

The film that will hopefully inspire more acts of modern-day whistleblowing

Back in 2005, one of the greatest mysteries in American history was solved when the identity of Deep Throat, the secret informant responsible for Richard Nixon’s downfall in the wake of the Watergate scandal, was revealed to be none other than Mark Felt, the FBI’s longtime Associate Director. Shortly after the story broke, author and filmmaker Nora Ephron, the ex-wife of Washington Post reporter Carl Bernstein, stated how her then-husband (who broke the story with Bob Woodward) had shared Felt’s identity with her. However, despite telling one of the biggest secrets of all time to a number of people, no one believed her. This is understandable given who Felt was as well as his reputation as the FBI’s biggest champion. It’s the reason why no one believed Ephron which helps carry Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House, the new biopic starring Liam Neeson as the titular character. After all why would someone who knows so much, risk it all?

Mark Felt centers on the weeks and months following the legendary FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s death. Despite being next in line, Felt (Neeson) finds himself passed over for promotion, being forced instead to watch L. Patrick Gray (Marton Csokas), Nixon’s former Assistant Attorney General, take the post. In the aftermath of the Watergate break in, Felt finds the integrity of the FBI being compromised by Gray, who insists that the invesitgation be swept up under the rug as quickly as possible. At the same time, problems at home between him and his wife Audrey (Diane Lane) continue to surface thanks to the disappearance of their only daughter, who has not been heard from in over a year. Frustrated, Felt decides to carry on with the investigation in secret, leading him to become one of the most powerful whistleblowers in history.

Admittedly, Felt’s story wouldn’t seem like the most cinematic of tales. Yet the way Mark Felt functions as a film is remarkable. There’s such a well-made tightness to the narrative, making it easily digestible for the audience. However the merit of facts portrayed remains intact, especially with regards to names and dates. With so much area to cover, Mark Felt doesn’t waste time in terms of background noise. Every scene here is invaluable in one way or another, from conversations in the back seats of cars, to shared drinks with colleagues. Helping things along is the film’s curious lighting, which remains crushed, dark and masculine, even during scenes taking place in daylight, giving the movie a surprising and incredibly welcome air of suspense that remains constant throughout. This is especially true in the sort of battle of wills Felt periodically engages in whenever someone appears to possibly suspect him of leaking information to the press in the film’s third act. At the same time, the scenes of Felt at home with Audrey are enthralling in their own right and keep the film from ever feeling like a dry, straightforward affair.

The primary reason most audiences, cinephiles anyhow, would cite for not seeing Mark Felt is that the story has been told before, and to great effect in 1976’s All the President’s Men where Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman played the famed reporters who broke the story. But Felt was nowhere near ready to admit to what he had done at that time and it would be years before this story, HIS story could be told. Yes, the facts and the outcome are the same, but the change in vantage point, from the reporters who were lauded as heroes by the people, to the man who risked everything and spent decades hiding in the shadows after, is most definitely worth exploring. Mark Felt never lets the many levels of internal conflict experienced by the title character be forgotten. The film portrays Felt as a man who literally gave his entire life to the bureau. From his early days in the prime Hoover years onward, Felt is shown to be someone who gave the utmost devotion to his post out of belief in what he and the organization represented. It’s because of this that watching him betray the integrity of who and what he served is devastating to watch with regards to the weight and gravity of what his actions represented. At the same time, there’s never any question as to the reasoning behind his actions; a combination of bitterness and desperation.

Despite being one of the most bankable action movie stars in the world, Mark Felt in a strong reminder of what a capable dramatic actor Neeson is. The level of composure he maintains in every scene is matched by the raw emotion he injects in the most subtle of ways. The performance isn’t a flashy one, but it’s hypnotic from start to finish thanks to the actor’s deep understanding of the man himself. The large ensemble cast, from straight dramatic actors such as Josh Lucas and Tony Goldwyn to comedic performers like Wendi McLendon-Covey and Ike Barinholtz, all rise to the occasion turning in solid work in their various roles. Yet it’s Lane as Felt’s wife Audrey who comes closest to matching Neeson in terms of commanding the screen. The actress only has a few scenes, but each one carries a deeper layer to a complicated woman, resulting in the most alive performance the actress has given in years.

Speaking of Lane, at a recent press conference Neeson and director Peter Landesman praised the actress for her work and expressed deep regret that the majority of her performance had been cut to reduce screen time, along with a number of other scenes. At and hour and 40 minutes, Mark Felt is hardly bloated, but perhaps the omission of so much material speaks to a fear on the producers’ part of not being able to maintain an audience’s attention for a full two hours. It was the wrong assumption. In fact, if this was 1998, Mark Felt would be the movie to beat. This would have been a film mounted on a grand scale, saved for a Christmas Day release and would have been part of the conversation all through awards season. As it stands, Mark Felt appears to be lost in the early onslaught of autumn releases, where its fate will remain as anonymous as the character it so electrifyingly portrays.

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