Mark Felt: Liam Neeson Brings Controlled Dignity to Watergate Player Deep Throat

By Kim Hughes

Here are words filmmakers rarely say: “I am so grateful it took forever to get this film made.”

Yet ask Peter Landesman about the 12 years between his 2005 concept for Mark Felt – The Man Who Brought Down the White House and its long-awaited release into theatres this month, and the American writer/director (and onetime novelist and painter) practically beams. 

 Liam Neeson as FBI G-man turned informant Mark Felt.

Liam Neeson as FBI G-man turned informant Mark Felt.

There’s no question in Landesman’s mind that the true-life story of Felt, a.k.a. “Deep Throat” — the FBI whistle-blower who provided reporters Bob Woodward of the Washington Post and Sandy Smith of Time Magazine with the insider dirt on the Watergate scandal that brought down President Richard Nixon in 1974 — would have landed with the same impact had it been released during the Obama presidency.

As Landesman and his star, Liam Neeson, explained during the Toronto International Film Festival, where Mark Felt screened this fall, the secrecy and lies cloaking the current Trump administration make Felt’s story feel very contemporary indeed. 

Landesman actually met Felt before he died in 2008. (A 2005 Vanity Fair story in which Felt outed himself as Deep Throat first put him on Landesman’s radar; the latter used Felt’s autobiography, written with John D. O'Connor, as source material for his film). Yet as Landesman and Neeson told Original Cin, Felt himself never felt like the hero many, including the filmmakers, believe him to be. 

Instead, Felt was a man deeply pained by the wrong-doing all around him yet willing to put everything on the line, including his family, to set things right. Fact-based stories don’t come more powerful than that even if, as Neeson sort-of jokingly says, Mark Felt is “basically a film about guys walking down corridors and sitting behind desks.”


Original Cin: Liam, how did this story find you?

Liam Neeson: My agent. I didn’t know Peter but knew some of his work as an investigative journalist. And I watched his film Concussion.  I was fascinated by that, especially since I knew nothing about American football. We talked about this Watergate thing and I was reasonably ignorant of it, growing up in Ireland. And then as usual, I thought of four different actors who would be better cast as Mark Felt than me. But Peter saw a nobility to this character that I felt I could capture. I started researching the period. Peter thinks Felt is an out-and-out hero. I think that when he was overlooked to head the FBI after (director J. Edgar) Hoover died in 1972, it really hurt him.  When they brought in an ex-submarine commander, an outsider, for the job, it added insult to injury. At that point, Felt saw there was a knot there that had to be undone.

OC: Peter, you’ve said you felt a real connection to Mark Felt...

Peter Landesman: True. When I was a war correspondent (writing for The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, among others) there were these packs of reporters at the hotels and bars and I would always just wander off. I was always more interested in what was happening peripherally. The fact that Felt was anonymous and kind of a nobody — and that people perceived his unveiling as Deep Throat 30 years later as kind of anticlimactic — is precisely what made his story so fascinating.  I have been making whistle-blower films for a while; Kill the Messenger (2014) and Concussion (2015). I truly believe writers have one story to tell. They may dress it up differently but everybody has a narrative. This is mine.

OC: Liam, did you and Peter discuss the contemporary relevance of the film?

LN: At the time we didn’t know Trump was going to be elected or that the FBI would again run afoul of the White House. But we talked a lot about Hoover who oversaw seven presidents in 45 years. And Mark Felt was a pupil of that. And that’s why he bristled so much when the White House tried to interfere in the investigation. Mark Felt was kind of unreadable. I was talking about that with his grandson last night at the screening. And his grandson said, ‘Yes, he could be like that but he was emotional, too.’ He loved his wife and his daughter but Bob Woodward never knew that side of him. He was able to compartmentalize his life.

OC: Peter, do you think Felt was motivated by the greater good or because he was pissed off at being overlooked for the top FBI job?

PL: I don’t think it’s either/or. With every decision in human history there is a stew of conscious and unconscious desires. Felt was pissed off he didn’t get that job for all the right reasons. He was built for that job and the only one qualified for it. And he knew Nixon was setting up the FBI to be turned into a weapon like the KGB.  He believed the FBI was the last line of defence before anarchy. In my opinion, he was a beautiful soul who had to do some corrupt things to safeguard the sanctity of the truth.

OC: Could something like this happen today?

LN: We know there was collusion with Russia and (current FBI director) Robert Mueller is a very determined guy. Whether the Twitter-in-Chief was a part of that, Mueller will find out. Where there is smoke, there is fire. And there is a lot of smoke. Something will be uncovered. Trump sees the press as the out-and-out enemy… and Richard Nixon did, too.

OC: There are some parallels to be drawn between Mark Felt and your most famous character, Oskar Schindler. Both were deeply embedded players covertly working with outside from within. Did you draw from a similar place to capture them?

LN: My knee-jerk reaction would be to say no. Schindler was a bon vivant. A second-rate businessman, but he knew how to throw a party and was very ostentatious. Mark Felt wasn’t that way at all. He was inscrutable. For this film, one of the hardest things was to make sure the audience didn’t get bored by the fact that he doesn’t show any emotion. 

OC: And the film’s long gestation really was a blessing in disguise.

PL: No question. And I will say this about the parallels between Nixon’s era and today: human behaviour does not change. You will always have greedy, powerful men doing stupid shit. And you will always have men of integrity trying to stop them. This kind of stuff happens every day in every country in every government all over the planet. We kid ourselves if we think things like Watergate, or Trump, are one-offs. 

Mark Felt – The Man Who Brought Down the White House

RATING: B+

For a film largely without action — which star Liam Neeson describes as “basically a film about guys walking down corridors and sitting behind desks” — Mark Felt – The Man Who Brought Down the White House has considerable impact, thanks to a sharp script by director Peter Landesman, working from Felt's autobiography along with its co-writer John D. O'Connor. 

It’s the early 1970s and the Nixon White House is heading towards the biggest constitutional crisis in U.S. history. As if seeing this coming and dreading the paperwork, long-time FBI director J. Edgar Hoover promptly dies. Yet his heir apparent, stoic and dyed-in-the-wool FBI stalwart Mark Felt, is passed over by the Nixon administration in favour of an outsider who, it quickly becomes clear, will ask ‘How high’ when the commander-in-chief’s cronies whisper ‘Jump.’ We watch as Felt’s disillusionment morphs into disbelief and finally, disgust and indignation, transforming the former “G-Man’s G Man” into the most impactful government whistle-blower this side of Edward Snowden.

Neeson is terrific as Felt — that’s saying something considering the character is about as dispassionate and inscrutable as it’s possible to be. But Neeson believably unpacks Felt’s dignity and frustration. Also great is Diane Lane as Felt’s long-suffering and deeply troubled wife and just about everyone (from Bruce Greenwood as Time reporter Sandy Smith to Michael C. Hall as John Dean, to name two) bring their best. But considerable parts of the film drag, and a secondary narrative about Felt’s runaway daughter, though true, feels weirdly disjointed. -KH

Mark Felt – The Man Who Brought Down The White House. Directed by Peter Landesman. Starring Liam Neeson, Diane Lane, Michael C. Hall, Bruce Greenwood, and Tom Sizemore. Opens October 13 in Toronto (Yonge-Dundas), Vancouver (International Village), and Montreal, and throughout the fall in other cities.