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aka The Secret Man

D: Peter Landesman / 103m

Cast: Liam Neeson, Diane Lane, Marton Csokas, Tony Goldwyn, Ike Barinholtz, Josh Lucas, Wendi McLendon Covey, Kate Walsh, Brian d’Arcy James, Maika Monroe, Michael C. Hall, Tom Sizemore, Bruce Greenwood, Eddie Marsan, Noah Wyle

To have lived in America during the late Sixties and early Seventies was to have lived in troubled times. The country was experiencing seismic shifts in practically all areas: sexually, racially, politically, socially. But if there was one constant, one small part of the US that could be counted on to remain the same, no matter what was occurring anywhere in the country, it was the FBI. The FBI under J. Edgar Hoover remained apart from political bias or influence, an autonomous body that answered to no one, but which involved itself – if needed – in the lives of everyone. If you ever wanted to know just how much Hoover was feared, you only have to watch the first scene in Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House. In it, the FBI’s Deputy Associate Director Mark Felt (Neeson) is called to the White House for a meeting with John Dean (Hall) and two of his colleagues in the Nixon administration, John Mitchell and John Ehrlichmann. When they infer that Hoover should step down as Director of the FBI, it’s Felt who chillingly reminds them about Hoover’s secret files, the ones that contain everybody’s dirty laundry. What would happen, Felt counter infers, if those files were made public. The idea of Hoover retiring is quickly dropped.

The scene serves two purposes: one, to show just why the FBI was so autonomous, and two, to make it clear to the viewer that even if Hoover wasn’t around, Felt would be, and he was just as much a keeper of the secrets as Hoover was. It’s a necessary distinction to make, as what follows in the wake of Hoover’s death on 2 May 1972, is a watershed in US history, and Felt’s involvement in that watershed is crucial to the events that led to President Nixon’s resignation from office. Make no mistake: without Felt’s involvement, and without the decision he ultimately took in becoming “Deep Throat”, the US political landscape would have continued to change irrevocably for the worse. It’s a theme that runs throughout the movie, and which has modern day parallels. After Hoover’s death, and the discovery of the Watergate break-in, the White House did its best to influence the FBI and stop it from carrying out a thorough investigation (sound familiar?). And the White House’s efforts would have succeeded – if it hadn’t been for Mark Felt.

And so we have Felt portrayed by Liam Neeson in a political drama that goes behind the scenes at the FBI during the two years between Hoover’s death and Nixon’s resignation. Based largely on A G-Man’s Life (2006), a memoir Felt wrote with John O’Connor, Peter Landesman’s latest movie is ultimately a strange beast, neither compelling enough to grab its audience and guide it safely through the political upheaval of the time, or clear enough on the details of just how Nixon was caught in a web of his own deception. Instead, Landesman’s script focuses on the need to keep Acting Director L. Patrick Gray (Csokas) in the dark about the investigation, the search for the mole in the FBI who’s leaking information to Time and The Washington Post, and on a personal front, Felt’s search for his runaway daughter, Joan (Monroe). These three strands lead to a lot of repetition as Felt repeatedly goes behind Gray’s back, accusations of someone being “Deep Throat” fly thick and fast through the FBI offices with almost everyone being accused at one point or another, and Felt reassuring his wife, Audrey (Lane), that Joan will be found safe and well.

It’s all done in a watchable, unpretentious way, with Landesman apparently content to play out the story as if he were doing it by the numbers. There’s energy here in the way that people around Felt seem to be rushing around but to no obvious purpose (Felt gives out lots of instructions but rarely receives any related feedback), and the pace of the movie is quick enough that boredom is never likely to set in, but it all seems like a missed opportunity. It’s another movie where we all know the outcome in advance (or at least should do), and so it’s also a movie where the script’s ability to create tension and maintain it is undermined from the word go. Even when Felt falls under suspicion of being “Deep Throat” and Gray implies that Felt is being bugged because of this, all it leads to is a few minutes of Felt searching his office and his home for hidden microphones, and then it’s all forgotten. In his efforts to include as much as possible that occurred during that tumultuous two-year period, Landesman has forgotten to ensure that what is included is both relevant and advances the narrative. As a result, there are too many occasions where said narrative stalls and needs to be kickstarted again.

In the title role, Neeson is square-jawed, determined, strikingly gray-haired, and a bit of a dull date. Spending time with Felt eventually becomes something of a chore. He’s not the most expressive of men – though when he becomes angry about something, his outbursts are like the tantrums of a six year old, or someone trying out being angry for the first time – and his stolid, rigid demeanour doesn’t exactly warm you to him, but where Neeson does succeed with the character is in showing his commitment to the FBI and the depth of his affiliation with it. The script hints at Felt becoming a whistleblower because of what was happening to the FBI rather than any disgust at Nixon’s criminal behaviour, but it falls short of exploring this idea fully, and instead paints Felt as a kind of Gary Cooper figure who has to do the right thing, no matter what. Neeson is also lumbered with some gloriously tedious dialogue, though the moment where he gets to say, “No one can stop the driving force of an FBI investigation, not even the FBI”, is one to cherish.

There’s good support from the likes of Lucas and Monroe, but Csokas comes across as too heavy handed as the out of his depth Gray. Lane, meanwhile, apparently gave such a great performance as Felt’s troubled wife that most of her scenes ended up on the cutting room floor, which is a shame as Lane provides easily the movie’s best performance in spite of this. Visually the movie is quite restrained, with a dark, limiting colour palette that is probably meant to represent the gloominess of the times, but which in reality makes the movie look unnecessarily dreary. In the end it’s a competently made movie but not one that stands out from the crowd despite its subject matter.

Rating: 5/10 – a movie that has all the potential to be a riveting political thriller is instead a rather uninspired trek through a period of US history that was anything but humdrum; Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House lacks drive and ambition in its attempts to tell Felt’s story, and settles early on for playing it safe and pedestrian in terms of its willingness to amble instead of soaring.

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