Eye For Film >> Movies >> Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down The White House (2017) Film Review
Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down The White House
Reviewed by: Andrew Robertson
Mark Felt was a highly placed and well regarded apparatchik within the apparat of America's Federal Bureau of Investigation. "Deep Throat" was the name given to an un-named source who gave classified details of investigations into the Watergate incident to the press. Mark Felt was widely expected to succeed J Edgar Hoover as director of the FBI. "Deep Throat" leaked information about criminal acts, stretched, broke, the law, in ways readily described as treasonous. Mark Felt was "Deep Throat". "Deep Throat" was Mark Felt.
Reconciling these seeming contradictions has been difficult enough for history, and it's had decades. Peter Landesman's film, based on Felt's own books, has about a hundred minutes. He's helped, ably, by a sterling performance from a silvery Liam Neeson, his tall frame that of "the G-Man's G-Man", ram-rod straight and not just by the book, of the book, the book personified. Except there's more than the book - this is meant to be on the right side of the bad old days, but the process of transition will not be smooth - not quite as chaotic as The Death Of Stalin, but this is history, not humour. Diane Lane is Mrs Felt, the perfect FBI wife - for this is a calling, a noble one - the FBI are one of the "two cockpits of America", a permenant fixture, a "deep state" if you will, of probity, of continuity. The other is never quite specified. Eddie Marsan briefly appears to represent the CIA. Make of that what you will.
Much of it you will have to - the film ends with a scene a decade later, counts along until and beyond the election in days, is closed by a series of screens heavy with elegantly serifed text - all seeking to provide context not just for a man but a time and a place. The first it perhaps succeeds with, in Felt's efforts to re-connect with his daughter, but it does a difficult job of explaining the gloves, of who and how they'd come off and come back on, of what blood on whose hands those gloves covered. There are allusions, some in performance - Tom Sizemore, now firmly in 'that guy' territory in particular, his Bill Sullivan embodies the adage that dogs resemble their masters. More like Billy West's Nixon in Futurama, a touch of the loup-garou, a monster in human form. Though other shorthands abound - the phrase "house of cards" is used, and some performances owe more than a debt to others in the remade series.
There are more subtle details - that which is hand-written, hand-writing, and an eye for elements that ground. The opening sequence with shots of the District of Columbia from the air has all the locales one would expect, including Watergate - though their significance isn't quite clear, even later - another place where audiences unfamiliar with the story might do with more context.
Mechanisms for delivery are fewer - there's exposition aplenty, mostly avoiding the usual pitfalls. There are some good bits of discovery and characterisation through costume,. One doesn't need to have a button-collar to be buttoned-down, but absences are more keenly noticed. The big lapels, the big cars, the big questions. Yet as a period piece it suffers because it's coming after 40 odd years of things that have come after. Cleverness of framing with shadows and doorways and meetings in car parks is matched with decades of other cigarette-smoking men in other shadows and doorways and meetings in car parks - a troubled FBI agent drinks coffee and eats a slice of pie in front of wood panelling - granularity, blessedness, source of colour (red) not declared.
Felt's motivations and his personal struggles are quite well handled - there's "by the book" and there's "off the books" and at his desk the twain shall meet. Clemency he offers too, marking his words carefully as he speaks to White House counsel, counsels, consoles, convenes war councils. The film struggles though, trying to serve two goals - the who and the why are here better covered than in many outings, the what and the how less so. It's that last where one would perhaps hope for something more sophisticated structurally, something that unfolds less linearly, a bit more back and forth. It relies too much on Daniel Pemberton's score, forcing at times a sense upon scenes that could do with a bit more mystery. The Seventies were a cradle for investigative journalism (as seen in The Post, All The President's Men) but they were also a place of more experimental film-making. This needn't have been Apocalypse Now, but it could have been longer, more involved, travelled further up-river in search of the heart of this man.
Its sense of history and its parallels are sometimes a bit laboured. FBI investigations that might reach into the White House are no longer new, are still news, and perhaps more than with any of Landesman's other history-pieces this has at times the air of 'ripped from the headlines'. It could well have been stronger without it - we have Felt at the height of his authority (with every inch of it embodied by Neeson), but we don't see his rise. The more complicated history of the Bureau is made relatively clear with some examples, contrasts, and perhaps its murkiness is already covered by fare like Public Enemies. This isn't The Good Shepherd (that's another body), but it could have drawn lessons from it.
Worthy, well-meant, well acted, but burdened by a heavy-handed score and expository weight, the film is much like its subject - broadly honourable, well regarded, important to (and as) history, but compromised.Reviewed on: 04 Mar 2018