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 Peter Landesman assumes the role of chief historian again

Photo: Liam Neeson plays FBI agent Mark Felt in his latest film “Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House”

By T.T. Stern-Enzi

Writer-director   Peter Landesman has an undeniable fascination with the stories behind the landmark headlines of our times. The filmmaker, who started out as an award-winning painter and novelist, before settling in as an investigative journalist and war correspondent for the New York Times Magazine, Atlantic Monthly, and the New Yorker, explored the Kennedy assassination from the chaotic perspective of the medical personnel and others at Dallas’ Parkland Hospital (“Parkland”) on that fateful day, and adapted the story of pathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu (Will Smith), who began the study into the impact of brain trauma on football players which has shaped the NFL concussion protocol (“Concussion”).

His latest film, “Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House,” peels back the surface layers of what we know about the Watergate scandal to reveal the secret identity of “Deep Throat,” the insider who funneled information to Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the journalists who broke the case in 1974. Shifting the focal point away from Richard Nixon and his conspirators in the Oval Office to Felt (Liam Neeson), the longtime FBI stalwart who assumed he would take over the agency after the death of J. Edgar Hoover, Landesman’s narrative neatly parallels the eerily similar contemporary circumstances of potential White House meddling in the affairs of covert statecraft.

Felt’s perspective derives from a purity of purpose that sets the FBI outside partisan politics. Information is gathered, across the board, and used only to keep the heads and hands at command in check, and in service of the greater good. We see glimpses early on of Felt away from the office with his wife Audrey (Diane Lane), dancing and socializing with close friends, and we get intimations that Felt’s daughter, Joan (Maika Monroe), is connected to the anti-war underground, but none of these personal details impacts his devotion to his principled Machiavellian goals.

Conflict arises when President Nixon begins planting members of his own inner circle into key positions in the agency—L. Patrick Gray (Marton Csokas), a complete FBI outsider who takes over, and Bill Sullivan (Tom Sizemore), a seedy former Hoover insider with dark intentions—to cover up his indiscretions. Landesman, at times, seems to stack the deck in his portrayal, by laying out the naked machinations in such a way that the Nixon scheme is so obviously criminal that it can’t work, but it becomes clear that once power has corrupted those who wield it, they lose any worry or concern about getting caught.

Felt, as a savior, is a complex figure, difficult to root for because no matter how good his intentions, he’s in a position with far too much power and control. That he sees himself as the ultimate white hat/good guy—as opposed to say his former boss, Hoover, and President Nixon—means that he misses the glaring blind spot of his identity as a privileged (and potentially unchecked) man. He recalls the comic book vigilantes of DC (Batman) and Marvel (Daredevil), the moral arbiters who believe that, thanks to their personal codes, they can dispense justice from on high. They cannot appreciate how psychotic it is to take on such lofty positions as judge, jury, and executioner, but, in each case, it paves the way for a great deal of heightened social and political drama.

Neeson certainly holds the center here as Felt, burrowing inside the man, muting his typical vengeful fire, and allowing performers like Tony Goldwyn and Josh Lucas, as his two key underlings at the FBI, the chance to stand next to him without getting caught in his righteous rage.

The problem with Neeson’s effort and the film overall, is this dialed back approach. With Felt playing it cool, no actual appearance from President Nixon (beyond archival footage), the passing cameo of Woodward (Julian Morris), and no sighting of Bernstein at all, Landesman doesn’t give audiences enough detail to piece together how Felt could have brought down even a White House so crippled by its own ego-driven ineptitude. And that was a major problem for a film seeking to make a name for itself at the Toronto International Film Festival during these comparatively troubled times. We needed a stronger reflection to help us see our way through our own crisis of political faith, and hope that we might slowly be able to rebuild the foundation. For that, you need more than one man, no matter how righteous.

Rating: PG-13; Grade: C+