Whereas the film “All the President’s Men” will likely be the definitive story of this most momentous moment in American history, and though screenwriter William Goldman does indeed take some literary license with the book, written by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, it is a gripping and taut story of two young reporters who tenaciously follow those threads which led from a second-rate office break-in of the Watergate Democratic headquarters to the resignation of the President of the United States.
That story proved to be a vibrant depiction of the role that the press can play in our system of checks and balances, aided, of course, by a deeply shaded whistleblower that said to Woodward, memorably, “Follow the money.” Perfect for the film’s narrative arc, but not exactly accurate.
The just released “Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House” is a completely different type of film with a totally different point of view.
First, it is shot in dark hues and seems all but monochromatic, mirroring the offices and the individuals who at that time walked the corridors of the old F.B.I. building: dark suits and consistently brittle interactions.
One of those men was a 30-year veteran and the Deputy Associate Director, Mark Felt (Liam Neeson). The year is 1972, and standing behind his desk sorting the morning mail he is brought the news that J. Edgar Hoover has died from an apparent stroke. Unexpectedly, the agency is without the man who has been at its helm since the F.B.I.’s inception.
Felt, given his position and history with the bureau, expects to be named by Nixon as the agency’s new director. Instead, Nixon names a loyal White House soldier, L. Patrick Gray (Martin Csokas). The context is that the break-in at the democratic headquarters, though in its nascent investigative stage, was heating up and Felt and crew were beginning to sort out who, what and why and making the connections between the men responsible and the Committee to Re-elect the President (aka CREEP).
Almost from the outset, Felt understood that Gray’s loyalty was not to the F.B.I., something he feels deeply; rather it is to the White House and Nixon. And though he is taken aback when he realizes this, and is told by Gray to shut down the investigation, Felt makes a fateful decision. He and his team will continue. And in one critical scene, regarding a conversation with John Dean, counsel to the President, he explains to Dean that the F.B.I. takes direction only from the Attorney General and the Justice Department and is therefore not a law enforcement agency working for the White House or the President.
This is a more than salient point but one that is made again and again in this movie, dryly to be sure but also without equivocation. And it is this principled and lawful fact that makes “Felt” a must see film.
Not only are the performances, given the material, well done and led by the stoic Liam Neeson, but Diane Lane, as always is superb as Felt’s wife.
But what gives this film a sense of urgency (which it does not possess) is its timely parallelism to today’s events. It is not the script that is chilling per se, something that was offered in abundance in “All the President’s Men,” but its relevance to 2017. History does seem to repeat itself and the maneuvering of Nixon then is blatantly similar to that of today’s White House.
While thus far there have been no Mark Felts to step forward and with breathtaking courage name names, there is still the mainstream media, especially ink-on-paper journalism.
The Fourth Estate was where Felt turned as he met clandestinely in a dark garage and pointed Bob Woodward in the right direction. Incredibly, his identity was kept a secret for 30 some years until Felt finally let it be known that he was in fact Deep Throat. That revelation was followed by a book, which was used by writer/director Peter Landesman to create the movie “Mark Felt.”