‘Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House’ is timely but flawed
“Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House” seems to prove that for Hollywood, timing can be everything. Interjecting itself neatly into the contemporary debate over the morality of leaks, this account of Mark Felt’s ─ popularly known as “Deep Throat” ─ famous leaks attempts to establish a historical precedent for the noble leaker. Unfortunately, if it weren’t for the critical importance of its subject matter, the film would not be nearly as satisfying.
“The Man Who Brought Down the White House” tracks the FBI investigation into the Watergate Hotel break-in that would eventually bring down the Nixon administration. Following FBI agent Felt (Liam Neeson) all the way from the initial crime scene to the president’s eventual resignation, the audience is exposed to the constitutional and moral crisis that convinces Felt to leak information of an unprecedentedly sensitive nature to various news outlets. Curiously, the movie did not choose to mirror the events as portrayed in “All the President's Men.” Bob Woodward (Julian Morris) plays only a tertiary role, taking a backseat to Time reporter Sandy Smith (Bruce Greenwood). Felt’s troubled home life forms the emotional core of the film, as the mysterious disappearance of his daughter into hippie counterculture strains his marriage. The ethical dilemma over whether to abuse his authority as an FBI agent in order to find his daughter makes for an interesting counterpoint to the decision to break FBI rules and leak to the press.
An impressive cast is boxed in by the simplicity of their roles. Liam Neeson bursts with dramatic energy as the eponymous lead, but fails to find room to give the character the nuance it deserves. The director seems determined to make a shining hero out of Felt, and doesn’t allow for the character’s real-life intricacy to deviate him from that path.
Indeed, Neeson shined most when hunting down his daughter, or even merely reflecting on her absence. However, the entire subplot feels like it was included grudgingly, and despite it prompting Felt to order illegal searches and wiretaps which would eventually lead to his own conviction, it somehow fails to add any depth to his character. Even the fact that Felt’s pursuit of Nixon was motivated at least in part by a personal vendetta, having been passed over for promotion, is justified as further evidence of the administration’s corruption, rather than as a possible stumbling block in the film’s quest to lionize Felt.
The same can be said for Felt’s wife (Diane Lane), whose main job is to explain why the daughter of such a noble hero as Felt could have ended up in need of rescue. Her tragic backstory is delivered heavy-handedly in a single scene of expositional dialogue. Lane, like the rest of the cast, gives the scene her all, but ham-fisted dialogue leaves her little to work with. She is reduced to emphatic gesturing with a drink in hand that seems to be obligatory for all Hollywood portrayals of poor mothers.
Heavy-handedness remains a theme throughout the movie, with overbearing music and melodramatic dialogue that leaves one longing for “Spotlight” and its calmer, more self-aware portrayal of a historic investigation. Felt staring out his office window at the White House could have effectively communicated the looming presence of the rogue Nixon administration over the investigation, had an invasive explosion of piano not interrupted any such thoughts.
For all its flaws, “The Man Who Brought Down the White House” manages to be an enjoyable film for all the reasons the studio counted on. President Trump’s attempts to discredit stories with all the potential administration-ending implications of Watergate because of their anonymous sourcing makes this feel like a necessary film. It adeptly – if not particularly poignantly – provides counterpoints to the common refrains of those who would disparage the practice of leaking. The result is a movie that satisfies if the viewer already agrees with its premise and its contemporary political implications.
If one is put off by its casting doubt on the arguments of those who would condemn leaks, or even more generally, by a Hollywood portrayal of a modern liberal talking-point, this film will do little to win over the viewer. This, perhaps, is the film’s most fatal flaw: like so much political art these days, one can’t help but suspect it is preaching to the choir.
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