Mark Felt: Two-thirds of a Film


Film Review |By Christian Tesfaye - Exclusive to Fortune



Is history repeating itself in the Trump-Russia investigation? Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House, Matti Cinema's recent offering, has no clue. It is a dramatisation of the eponymous real-life figure's defining role during the Watergate Scandal, where he fulfilled the part of the famous Washington Post source "Deep Throat". Christian Tesfaye was worse for wear for he felt cheated out of a climax, and a commentary on contemporary American politics, awarding 5 out of 10 stars.


First, the basics of storytelling.

There are always three acts. The first is the introductory piece, where the audience gets to know the characters, their environments and the conflict that arises. What follows is essentially the body of the story, where everything comes to a boil, and leads the audience or reader headlong into what the third act is. Of course, as the French New Wave has taught us, there is no need for these sets of events to transpire chronologically, but that does not mean skipping any one of them all together.

But, do not tell that to the creators of Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House. The film begins like most other movies. Linearly, it introduces us to its protagonist, props the movie and builds it up, the score getting darker, the characters restless, before finally, inevitably, climaxing in, well, nothing. It is the proverbial 103 minutes of foreplay.

The film tells the story of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) associate director in the early 1970s, Mark Felt. For history buffs or anyone informed of American politics, the time was a turbulent one for American democracy, and especially the institutions that were expected to prop it up. It was the era of the Watergate Scandal, the most notorious political scandal in the United States (US), leading to the resignation of the then President Richard Nixon.

It started when the Democratic National Committee (DNC) located at the Watergate Office building in Washington, D.C. was burgled. The rest, as they say, is history. Thanks to exceptional journalism by reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post, a daily newspaper established back in the 19th century, multiple cases of abuse of power by the Nixon administration led to the single instance of a presidential resignation in the nation’s history.

But, Woodward and Bernstein could not have done it by themselves. They had an informer, nicknamed “Deep Throat” inside the Bureau which was instrumental in pointing out the breadcrumbs. That informer was long rumoured to be Felt, which the FBI agent confirmed in 2005, three years shy of his passing.

The film narrates this turn of events. In the beginning, Felt (Liam Neeson) is quite a loyalist, to both the institution and its longtime director, J. Edgar Hoover. The Nixon administration is no fan of the Bureau’s director, but his passing allows them to install an acting director more susceptible to their “suggestions”, like Pat Gray (Marton Csokas).

Felt, who is privy to all the files that are compiled on the Watergate Scandal, notices that the crime can implicate high ranking White House officials, perhaps even the president. His suspicion is reinforced by various attempts to kill the investigation by both the acting director and the government’s executive organ. It finally gets to the point where they are forced to close the case, which vexes Felt as the Bureau is intended to be an independent body.

Prompted by consciousness, provoked by misshapen authority translating into exploitation, he turns to organs he believes can right the wrong, the media, specifically, Time magazine and Washington Post.

Neeson channels Felt rather interestingly. History has turned Deep Throat (the phrase would have made for a catchier title, but if it is lost on you why it was not used, then you are terrible at innuendo), which was instrumental in Nixon’s resignation from office, into a crusading hero – that seemingly ordinary lifer in public institutions that raises a red flag whenever power is corrupted.

Neeson’s Felt though appears to be more annoyed at the White House’s impertinent interference in to the investigations of the Bureau, which, granted, is an offence worth a penalty in and of itself, but seems somewhat angelic in the face of the DNC break-in that constituted election irregularities.

I laud the filmmakers for they have refrained from hero-worship for Felt is a caricature of a man past his time. His actions seem more a consequence of his reluctance to see change, even if said-change is fair. The side story about his personal life, his daughter’s disappearance, in particular, is perhaps meant to show the source of that aversion. He belonged to a time of significant transformation, which fortunately for Felt, was for the worst, and his struggle against it was misinterpreted as heroism.

If this were a concept that the filmmakers, and Peter Landesman, had built upon, Mark Felt would have been a fantastic character study. Alas, they were more consumed with the Watergate Scandal, whose machinations have been retold many times than Nixon would have cared to count.

Take for instance the 1976 All the President’s Men, which dramatised it far more efficiently, this time from the perspective of Bernstein and Woodward. Vaulting from a concisely penned adapted screenplay by William Goldman, which went on to win an Oscar, Alan J. Pakula directed with great attention to detail to deliver a political thriller that was free from vanity. At this point, even Paul Thomas Anderson will be hard-pressed to narrate the scandal under a 1970s historical vacuum.

Landesman must then be a lazy guy to fail to use the opportunity to comment on current American politics. It is saddening in that history, in many ways than one, is repeating itself. Perhaps it would be too obvious to create historical parallels between the Donald Trump administration and that of Nixon’s.

Still, it was worth the risk. For a film that dares to highlight the start of the decline of trust in public institutions, the occasion to hypothesise on the current state of affairs was wide and varied. It takes quite an apathy to resist the temptation to comment, say something, scream and shout, or even show the kind of courage the film’s protagonist does, on the daily thumping experts, facts and principled institutions take from unscrupulous interest groups and populists.

It is extraordinary that All the President’s Men, released four decades back, better predicts the present, than a contemporary film.



Published on Dec 02,2017 [ Vol 18 ,No 918]


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