Mark Felt was the ‘Deep Throat’, perhaps the most famous “leak” — or as they now say, whistleblower — of all time. His motivation in revealing FBI secrets to take the covers off the Watergate scandal has always been a matter of debate. Did the veteran FBI hand act out of spite after not being made FBI Director despite serving 30 years, and being second in command to the legendary J Edgar Hoover? Did he hope to make the White House so disgusted at the FBI leaks to have it axe the director, leaving him in charge? Or did he act out of his upright sense of right and wrong, his belief in both the rightness of the FBI and the wrongness of the Richard Nixon presidency?
At the same time, that is the saving grace of this long overdue film on a character who played the pivotal role in an incident that would come to define political scandals. Its story rests on a touching belief in the autonomy of government institutions and their ability to withstand pressure from the highest quarters. It rests on the shock Felt and company feel when they realise it is no longer true. It rests on the delay it takes for Felt’s contacts in the press to put two and two together, simply because no one dared believe that the “bread crumbs” of clues from that Watergate Hotel break-in could go right up to the Oval Room.
Landesman, a former journalist who has more writing than directing credits to his name, doesn’t steer too far from the gloomy corridors of the FBI. However, despite Neeson’s grey, sharply cut, forbidding visage, with deep-set lines and lips darkened by cigarette, the sense of what we are seeing unfold here never really strikes you. We get no connect with the people inhabiting the story, except Neeson, and no feel of the dangers as they tread unfamiliar waters. In its only attempt at an emotional touch, Felt has awkward scenes with Audrey, and Lane is completely unnecessary as his wife who is in some funk over their daughter lost to a counterculture movement. The weirdest and most unjustified scene has Audrey complaining about their 13 transfers on his FBI job, and how only him becoming a director would have compensated for all that. Nothing that follows suggests Audrey’s ambition.
Lane apart, the film has many other good actors turning up in bit roles, including Sizemore as Felt’s FBI competitor Ben Sullivan, Tony Goldwyn as his friend and colleague Miller, and Bruce Greenwood as Time correspondent Sandy Smith. But as the film makes its course to its well-known end, rushing through some of its most crucial parts, dawdling over inexplicable ones, and shooting a few encounters (like between Felt and journalist Bob Woodward) in a very unsatisfying manner, they are mostly wasted.
What lingers behind is Felt’s passionate speech to fellow agents, as the White House seeks to halt its Watergate probe. “No one can stop the driving force of an FBI probe,” he tells them. “Not even the FBI.”