When Immovable Corruption Meets Unstoppable Corruption.
MARK FELT: THE MAN WHO BROUGHT DOWN THE WHITE HOUSE is a clickbait title. It tells us it’s going to push the mainstream narrative that FBI Associate Director William Mark Felt singlehandedly brought down the corrupt Nixon administration in 1974, by leaking anonymously to the press during Nixon’s Watergate scandal. Nicknamed “Deep Throat” by the Washington Post, Felt’s persona here, and his subsequent “noble” and “heroic” actions are probably as much a fantasy as the 1972 porn movie that his epithet is derived from.
The opposing narrative seems more plausible in hindsight – that Felt was leaking to undermine his own acting FBI director (L. Patrick Gray), whom Nixon appointed, in order to gain that post himself; in that sense, Felt actually needed Nixon to stay in office, so that if Gray was sacked, Nixon would appoint Felt to the coveted position.
The main indicator that this movie favors the former narrative is that they’ve cast a noble and heroic actor in the role: Liam Neeson plays Mark Felt as an intimidating figure, scarier than his TAKEN assassin (it helps that the 6’4” Neeson towers over his fellow actors!), always gliding around with two aides at his shoulders (Josh Lucas and Tony Goldwyn), black suits and sunglasses, ready to beat ass and take names; opening doors for him, telling people to watch their tone around Mr. Felt, menacing just by their presence, forming a power-triangle in any room with Felt at the head. It’s how we’d all love to move through the world. It was gangsta!
When White House Counsel John Dean (Michael C. Hall, DEXTER) orders Felt to find the leakers, Felt reminds him, calmly and assuredly, “The white house has no authority over the FBI.” Dean starts objecting – Felt interjects: “–at all!”
LOVE that power! (But wait!—Am I loving the power of this felon, or am I loving The Neesons wielding that power? This is the movie-star trap the filmmakers set for us, and it’s hard to extricate ourselves from that Neeson-love and see through to the witchteat soulless prick beneath.)
Felt languished as second banana to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover for the majority of his life. Early in the film, when we hear of Hoover’s death; Felt and all his cronies (including his wife, Diane Lane) take it for granted he will ascend to the throne… But Felt is passed over by president Nixon, who appoints one of his own cronies as acting FBI director – L. Patrick Gray (Marton Csokas, THE EQUALIZER). By this movie’s account, Felt remained the most powerful man in the FBI anyway – you know the story: the king-whisperer, not the king, is actually the decision-maker and knows where the bodies are buried. Weighed against Felt’s 30 years of service, newcomer Gray is always perceived as merely a figurehead/puppet. And Gray’s “acting director” designation gave Felt hope that he could be dislodged.
MARK FELT: THE MAN WHO BROUGHT DOWN THE WHITE HOUSE was rolling along nicely with its somber tone, muted colors and stoic cast; also, its angle of viewing the Watergate Scandal from the point of view of the anonymous informant known as Deep Throat! But as the film wears on, we realize this 103 minute movie cannot possibly cover the complicated series of events that enshrouded Watergate, nor make these events all tie in to this one man, so the third act becomes a fleeting series of names (Ehrlichman, Segretti, Bill Sullivan) and events (Felt’s FBI office is gutted to uncover the mole, Nixon gets re-elected, Felt sweeps his office for bugs, Gray feels the white house breathing down his neck over the leaks), and unless we know the full story going in, we are left with a piecemeal final product that doesn’t quite explain the connective tissue between Deep Throat, the Watergate Hotel, and President Nixon.
Movie also subverts our expectations when it comes to Felt’s interaction with The Washington Post. As writer-director Peter Landesman says, that story’s already been told, so he made a conscious decision NOT to focus on the Woodward-Bernstein-Washington Post angle. So even if this movie IS adopting that age-old narrative, at least it is widening the viewpoint. Landesman told Time: “Watergate is not the story of two reporters; [it’s] the story of the system, and when the system broke down, one person had to create a new mechanism.” Thus – while this movie’s companion piece ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN placed Woodward and Bernstein at the crux of Nixon’s resignation, this movie places Felt there, with the added info that Felt leaked to many reporters other than Woodward and Bernstein (Sandy Smith at Time featuring heavily here, played by Bruce Greenwood); conversely Woodward and Bernstein admit that they drew on many other sources than Deep Throat. And it was a vast number of articles, leaks, investigative reporters and whistleblowers that all contributed the required 1000 cuts to bring down the reign of Satan’s Vagina Nixon.
A refreshing aspect is that Felt meets Bob Woodward (Julian Morris) in a parking garage, yes, but without that fanciful staging of ominous Deep Throat silhouette, voice issuing from the darkness (as in PRESIDENT’S MEN). No, it’s a full frontal meeting in daylight; also, we see a young, breathless Bob Woodward portrayed not as the staid Robert Redford, but looking more like Dustin Hoffman’s Bernstein with his long hippie locks (and we never even see a portrayal of Carl Bernstein – he’s just neglected out of this tale).
So let’s focus on that darn “opposing” narrative that refuses to go away – and will probably grow more preeminent with each passing decade after Felt’s death (1913-2008). I too regarded Felt as a “hero” for many years, due to being fed that same ole narrative of Deep Throat collaborating with two sexyboys from the Washington Post. But the reality is, Felt’s selfish goals in the early 70s happened to overlap what was best for the country, whereas most of his life was spent committing atrocities adverse to the country’s wellbeing.
W. Mark Felt was no saint. Nor was he a patriot. He was a felon. Unindicted and unconvicted for most of his crimes, yet a person who would be considered a felon under any regular American citizen’s circumstances. He conducted illegal wiretaps, innumerable coverups, broke into homes without search warrants, violated the constitutional rights of U.S. citizens, and committed treason with his parking garage meetings. The only crime position bigger than Felt’s was the position of President of the United States. (Nixon actually tried to quell the FBI investigation into Watergate. That’s how criminal the white house was/is.) In 1980, Felt was convicted of violating civil rights. In 1981, he was pardoned by that bigger criminal position – the president Ronald Reagan. For every life Felt may have saved by being a coincidental cog in the toppling of the unconscionable Nixon admin, he was probably responsible for destroying as many lives with his criminal FBI activities.
And when we step back and overview the career of this career criminal, it’s so much easier to see Felt’s motivation for leaking as being career-aspirational rather than patriotic. When the narrative portrays Felt as JUST THIS WHISTLEBLOWER (without the context of his career), he seems like a man disappointed in the corruption of his government and intent on justice, when in reality, he was subsumed in the corruption, wallowing in it daily, to the point where “corruption” held no meaning – it was merely the way to do business, so THIS particular corruption would not have moved Felt to anything out of the ordinary. Matter of fact, Felt had quashed many investigations that might have led to indictment of high government officials – and engineering even one such obstruction of an investigation means that Felt was never intent on upholding justice, but rather, intent on keeping his job as the perceived upholder of justice.
And at that juncture (Watergate), Felt was intent on being promoted in his job, so worked to undermine his superior (Gray). The leaks themselves were the endgame for Felt – they were never meant to be parlayed into a battering ram of evidence against the white house; their existence was meant to simply illustrate the incompetence of Gray. I imagine that Felt foresaw his pathway as: Gray fired – Felt appointed FBI Director – under his iron fist, the leaks stop (which would have been easy to accomplish as HE was the leaker!), making the FBI and himself look powerful again. The actual instigators and burglars in the Watergate scandal be damned! It was NEVER about – snigger – upholding justice! Felt’s mission would have been accomplished and that scandal would have “disappeared.” But as history has shown, shit got more pear-shaped than Scarlett Johansson’s bottom.
And much like Tommy Wiseau now claims THE ROOM was always meant to be a comedy because people laugh at it ironically, Mark Felt just rode the public opinion wave that misread his subterfuge as heroism, and ate out on that misperception until his death.
In the final scene, we see Felt in a grand jury investigation, where a juror asks him, “Were you Deep Throat?” The camera focuses on Felt’s face, anguished – and cuts to black. In reality, Felt said, “No.” Of course, he lied under oath. Another crime that went unpunished.
So this movie remains a Noble Hero vehicle for Liam Neeson, but not much else – not accurate, not historical, not biographical. In the end, MARK FELT the movie remains as enigmatic as Mark Felt the man.